Rest In Peace

My brother died last week after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer and we buried him yesterday. He lived for more than two years after his diagnosis. He survived surgery to remove he original mass, a complicated procedure that rerouted some of his inside parts. He also survived radiation and chemotherapy. Pancreatic cancer is a death sentence for almost all who are diagnosed. It is just a matter of time and the will to survive. Bob’s will was strong. He hoped for a miracle and it appeared that he did not believe he would die. Bob never seemed to outgrow that adolescent belief in immortality. He was also afraid to die up to the very end. Pain was what finally overrode both.

Bob had always been a survivor. In his early twenties he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I don’t think anyone really knows when Bob began hearing voices, but I think most who knew him would admit that his struggles started early in life. He did not have a lot of friends, school was difficult even though he was intelligent and he never really seemed to fit in. He was often told he was lazy. He slept a lot and enjoyed video games before they were really popular. I remember him playing pinball, PacMan and other old school video games. I believe these were probably escapism from his voices and his problems. Later in life, he would use drugs and alcohol to quiet the demons. He served in the Army and got out just when the schizophrenia was beginning to strongly manifest itself.

I remember a time when a Bob liked to read books, take walks through A neighboring cornfield to visit the grotto, go to the park or play in the creek. He liked to make plans for his future family and the farm he was going to have. He liked to go swimming and ride the bike he earned from his paper route. Bob’s future was very different from the one he planned. But, who believes that they are going to grow up and suffer from mental illness and die at the age of 48 in a nursing home?

There are some who saw his struggles and judged Bob’s life. He was a hermit for many years who did not like to be in public because of the voices. He took his medication sporadically or not at all. Family members stopped visiting because of his living conditions and inability to interact socially. He received few phone calls because he often said strange things and made little sense. He was alone even though he did not live alone and he had an extensive family. There are also some who judge the way Bob was treated by that family.

The truth is, we did the best that we knew how. None of us could fix his problems especially if he could not or would not take his medicine. He was technically an adult even if he was not in a position to support himself. In his final two years, he lived in a nursing home where he received his medication regularly. The medication helped but did not completely resolve his symptoms. Bob saw each of his 12 siblings at some point during his last two years. Due to proximity and circumstances he saw some more than others. There have been judgements about that as well. My sister told me years ago as our grandfather was dying that you can’t judge other peoples’ grieving processes. At the time I am not really sure I really understood even though I tried to take her advice. I do understand now. My adult relationship with Bob was tenuous and fragile, but we grew up together. Our paths took very different turns, we made different choices and were dealt different cards, but our early lives were similar.

I was close to Bob when we were very young but by early adolescence our lives were changing. I tried at times to write and call and visit, but we never regained that childhood bond. I could not put myself in his shoes and Bob could not put the needed work into any relationship. I saw my brother just three times in his last two years, but ten years ago, I thought I would never see him again. I am sorry for all the pain and suffering that Bob endured in his life. It seems unfair that one person has to go through so much, but I truly believe there is a reason for everything. Whether you believe in God, Karma or something else, there has to be a larger purpose for everything that happens. We may never fully understand the bigger picture, but we have free will to make choices along the way and we carve out the lives that are meant for us.

Bob’s dying just like his living was somewhat complicated and messy. I am grateful that his final illness brought him back to us even if those bonds were loose. I may not always see my family or speak to them often, but, I know they are there and will do whatever they can to help me. I only need to ask. We each showed our love and affection to Bob the best we could. In the end I think he knew peace and the love and forgiveness of his family. I know he is now free from pain and struggle and I take comfort in that.

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Week Twelve Time to Refocus

Day 1 – Today I got up and got everyone out of the house earlier than usual. I am a co-chair for the elementary school book fair and needed to meet my partner. The fall book fair is a mini-fair and will run today and tomorrow from 8:30 am until 8:00 pm. We got everything set up and had a few customers. It is a half day both days because of conferences so I arranged for child care for the boys until 4. I then went home to get the organized for swimming, homework, dinner and a sitter before heading back out for a conference and to help close the book fair for the day.

Day 2 – Today is a repeat of yesterday but I could only stay at the fair until 1:30 when one of my boys had a well visit and the second had an appointment to check out his sore ear. One ear infection and a successful well visit later and we headed home for homework. We then took Nate to the pool and headed to Target for an antibiotic. The sick child had tubes but they are both sitting on his ear drum, so I hope this isn’t the start of many ear infections. Luckily our ENT is conservative so he won’t rush to do a second tube surgery. After the boys went to bed, I got my “run” in on my trampoline. Aerobically, I work harder outside because I sweat more and seem to get my heart rate higher, but I think I work my muscles harder on the trampoline.

Day 3 – Jack and I took a nice walk in the woods. It was beautiful and no squirrels bothered me so it was a successful outing.

Day 4 – I got back outside for my run which felt great. My pace has slowed, but as long as I keep getting out, I am not going to beat myself up about it. The goal is to move my body and get fit any way I can.

Day 5 – We walked in the woods again and my nearly ten year old dog was more playful than I have seen him in quite a while. We ran into many other dogs and owners enjoying the day. I am starting to panic slightly about the ten people I am hosting for dinner tomorrow. My house is still littered with camping gear and detritus from our New York trip, but I am making progress one step at a time.

The walk today was so good for me as I am also thinking about the two deaths I learned about today. One is the mother of a close friend whose cancer ended her life and the other is a young man from our summer pool who was killed in a home invasion. I am thankful for my health and every day I have. I am trying not to take anything for granted.

Day 6 – Today is a big day. I probably should try to get out for at least a walk, but the piles of laundry to put away along with the dusting, vacuuming and bathroom cleaning is stressing me out too much to leave the house. I got a bit of exercise running through the house. I enlisted the help of all family members and we got it all done. We were ready for dinner group at 6:00. I even delivered my oldest to his swim meet and transferred him to one of our very capable teenage babysitters. I will leave dinner at some point to pick him up.

Day 7 – After church this morning, I wanted to go for a run or at least a walk, but I spent a lot of time on the phone making arrangements for a wake and funeral early next week. My middle son got invited to a last minute party and my oldest had part two of his swim meet. I may not have gotten all the exercise I wanted in this week, but I am making healthier eating choices and have stepped back from the Halloween candy. As long as I don’t gain my usual “holiday ten” I will be happy. I also plan to refocus on my goal of doubling my 2012 bike mileage. I have about 120 miles to go so I need to fit about two rides in per week.

Check your pulse

All too often, we get caught up in life and forget to be grateful for our blessings. Some people are better at this than others. They feel blessed for their morning coffee to their cozy bed and everything in between. There are others who feel life has dealt them a cruel blow and their coffee is too weak or too cold and their bed is too hard, well you get the picture. The other day a friend posted one of those cartoon-like pictures on Facebook that I felt compelled to re-post  The saying was, “Don’t have anything to be grateful for? Check your pulse!”

I was compelled to re-post because I believe it is so true and in the last few years, I am realizing more and more what a precious gift life really is. After two miscarriages, I was fortunate enough to go on and have three healthy boys. I have watched my neighbor and several family members struggle with cancer. Some have beat the battle and some have not. I have also watched family and friends struggle with the deaths of those close to them. Some due to the aforementioned cancer, old age, but others were completely shocking. Each of the survivors would be grateful for another day with their loved one.

Over a year ago, one men escaped death and his family and friends celebrate each and every day that he has had since. Last fall, my family and I met Travis Mills. He is the young man who escaped death. He was serving in Afghanistan with the military when he set his bag down on what was unfortunately a IED. Travis became the fourth of 5 quadruple amputees in the war and has every reason to be bitter and ungrateful, yet on April 10, he celebrated his Alive Day.

We met because my oldest two sons were selling popcorn with their dad in front of a grocery store in Rockville. My youngest son and I happened to stop by to get a few groceries and to visit the boys, when the other boys were talking to Travis. The older boys had asked Travis to buy popcorn and he was trying to get money out of his wallet using his claw hand. He asked my seven year old for help. The boys were a little nervous and uncomfortable at first, but they also thought it was kind of cool because they are fans of Star Wars and in real life they got to see someone with artificial limbs that were functional.

Travis was amazing and so patient with the boys. He told them what had happened to him and showed them how his arms worked. That day he was in a wheel chair without his prosthetic legs because they weren’t feeling good. He had gotten a new pair and had worked out really hard the previous day. Travis was with his father in law, but was clearly independent. He was grateful for his service and he did not regret being there even though he lost all his limbs. He was also grateful for his life and  his family especially his young daughter.

I am grateful my family and I got the chance to meet Travis. We have talked about how inspiring he is and how he has had to overcome many obstacles to resume his life. Even though we have not met again, my family and  I are following Travis and his journey on his Facebook page. I invite you to follow his journey as well. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Support-for-Travis-Mills-and-family/525105887541986

In addition, I challenge you all to start keeping track of the things you are grateful for. When the days are dark, it is helpful to see how many blessings you really have. Not everyone is an optimist and can see the glass half full, but each of us has something (probably many things) that are blessings in their life. Go out today and be sure to count your blessings. When you do, you will be surprised at how many more come your way.

Final Plans

Today I had a conversation with my brother that I didn’t expect to have with any of my siblings for many years to come. I was visiting him in the hospital where he is in the ICU being treated for possible pneumonia and sepsis complicated by an immune system compromised by chemotherapy and radiation treatments for his pancreatic cancer. My sister and I asked him what life support steps he wants to take if it comes to that. He was diagnosed with his cancer six months ago after a bout of pneumonia and sepsis and he is still coming to terms with the fact that his condition is likely terminal. He doesn’t want to die and he doesn’t want to believe he is.

We also discussed a “final resting” or burial place and cremation versus burial. It was an awkward uncomfortable conversation but we got through it and even managed to joke. I know joking is a defense mechanism, but it also helped put him at ease. I am not sure we resolved anything, but the lines of communication are open and we will continue to have the conversation. There is still much to discuss and learn.

We learned that Bob had cancer about six months ago after a series of hospitalizations for pneumonia, excess fluid buildup in his stomach, removal of a mass in his liver, sepsis, and finally the cancer diagnosis. He is lucky that he went to the hospital when he did and he is lucky he recovered sufficiently to have the cancer surgery and then go on to have chemo and radiation. He has a tremendous will to live and I pray that he does not suffer immeasurably. He was having a lot of stomach pain when we visited him yesterday after he ate. The doctors are telling him he has gastrointestinitis or flu, but I suspect it is more. My uncle also has pancreatic cancer and his diagnosis was a few months earlier and he also has a great deal of stomach pain.

Prior to Bob’s diagnosis, he had not seen most of our family since 1999. It is a long complicated story, but Bob also is schizophrenic and that disease caused some behaviors that made it difficult for him to leave his home. His living situation was not conducive to welcoming family and friends. Cancer for him, has reunited him with his brothers and sisters and also allows him to receive medical care regularly. He is only 47 years old, but he lives in a nursing home. He is happy to be there, because he is well-cared for and his basic and medical needs are met.

Part of the reason, Deb and I were able to discuss death with Bob is that we have seen a lot of it. All four of our grandparents have died, we have both lost various members of our husbands’ families, but the hardest have been the deaths that have occurred in our other sister’s family. Just over four years ago, my nephew was killed with his girlfriend when they were driving home from dinner and a movie. It was an awful time for his sister and his parents and everyone who knew Chris. It was a terrible tragic accident and changed the lives of many forever. Navigating the sorrow and grief has been difficult and painful and is still an ongoing process.

Five months ago, tragedy struck Mary’s family again. Her husband was killed in another horrible accident. Everyone who knows and loves this family was saddened that my sister and niece had to go through such a loss when their grief was still so fresh. Those of us who are closest to the two of them are amazed by the grace and strength they show every single day. They continue to move forward even when they don’t feel like getting out of bed. They have kept busy and are honoring their son/brother and husband/father by making the most out of each and every day.

I don’t know that my brother will ever be able to live life in the fullest the way many of us are able, but he is enjoying his life and his family has rallied around him and are helping him. I don’t know how much time he has, but experience has shown me that none of us really know how much time we have. Enjoy your life and don’t wait until another day to start. Life really is short even when the days can be long.

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