Archives for posts with tag: death

After my brother died last week, I realized he was the immediate family member I had spent the most time with. He was 67 when he died and I didn’t have that much time with either of our parents and our sister is younger. That’s a sobering thought among all the other mixed emotions that have swarmed me.

I was 2 1/2 when Jim was born and our family soon moved to Tulsa from Oklahoma City. We’ve been here ever since. This picture was taken soon after the move.Karen & Jim November 1948 #2We tagged around together for a couple of years until we were joined by our little sister, which smashed him between the two girls.Karen, Jim & Linda Hamilton  1950I was glad to have a brother because that meant we had baseballs and comic books and all the other boy things of the 1950s. We shared a bedroom for our early years, complete with green chenille Hopalong Cassidy bedspreads. I wouldn’t have had those without having a brother and I loved those bedspreads. As I got older, I moved to my own room and he had to share with our little sister until our parents built a large home and we each had our own bedroom. When our parents would leave us alone, my sister and I would torment him, knocking on his door, irritating him until he chased us to the door of our bedrooms where we pressed against the doors so he couldn’t get to us. Siblings at their most tender.

Jim was uniquely himself, a very smart, polite, handsome boy. At an early age, he began to battle his weight and our parents tried to help him as best they and doctors knew to do back then. It was a life-long battle for him. He played ball, was a cub scout, learned golf as we all did. We swam and played outside and had a great childhood. One of his great loves that continued throughout his life was fishing. I don’t remember exactly where we first fished, but it was a part of our time with our uncle, our father and others. Jim loved it!

Through adolescence, Jim developed an interest in photography and had his own dark room. He was brilliant but not a brilliant student all the time. His rebellion was growing in typical teen fashion. By the time we got to college, he followed me to Oklahoma State University and studied English, further developing his interest in writing. By the end of those years, he left and travelled Europe, living for awhile in the Canary Islands. It was hard to communicate in those days and my parents were worried sick. He came home and opened a record store, but eventually ended up in the family automotive parts warehouse. He learned computers early and took care of that for the business long before the rest of us even understood the potential.

Jim married, had a daughter, divorced. That was that except that he loved his daughter unconditionally until the day he died. This is a fun photo he kept of them on one of the trips they took together.IMG_9387He had friends and pets, including a parrot he brought to the office with him for many years. In his later years, he adopted a dog, Kelly, from friends who were moving abroad and loved that little girl until she passed on.

His life was his and I’m sure he was lonely, but you never knew. He had fishing buddies and his drinking buddies and his writing groups and his Mensa contacts and other friends.  He played poker online, watched football and other sports and followed the stock market. He seemed busy all the time with one thing or another.

What it comes down to is that he’s gone and I’m the one who was with him the most until the end. Those last couple of years were rough as his health had deteriorated and the options were few. It was the ultimate nightmare when your brain is years away from death and you are watching your body make the decisions for you. For the last 17 years of his life, he slept with a machine for sleep apnea, probably setting some kind of record. He had diabetes and was massively overweight and suffered constant pain from arthritis in his hands and knees. I realized the other day that the last time he came to our holiday dinners was 2006. I always packed up Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner to take to him in the next years. How did it get to be that long?

My goal was to help him stay in his house as long as he could since it was paid for and all the care he would need was expensive. I quietly admired his strength of both body and spirit as he conquered the obstacles. He went from a cane to a walker. When he didn’t feel he could drive anymore, he quit. He got a motorized cart and drove himself to the store, the bank, the barber. I was amused because he used to drive a midget racer when he was a kid and he delighted in this machine in much the same way. ScanIMG_5963He never asked me for any help and made all his arrangements himself. He found someone to install poles around his house to help him lift himself up from his recliner, his office chair and his bed. Eventually, he added a second motorized cart for inside the house and had a ramp added to his house so he could drive that cart to his garage and transfer to the other one to make his trips. He took a lot of pride in being able to figure all of this out. Jim was 6’2″ and must have had incredible upper body strength to be able to manage all these things. He hired some nursing service helpers to come over for a couple of hours for small chores, but they weren’t much more help than I was really.

Those last couple of years were painful to watch. I told him I had no idea what to do to help him other than run errands for him or get my kids or grandkids over to help move things or do small chores for him. He appreciated everything so much. Every week he emailed me his grocery list, which he dictated to his voice program on the computer to save his hands, yet another gadget that helped and delighted him. I would deliver the groceries and unpack them for him (he would put them away later, using his handy grabber gadget), then sit for a chat to hear about what was going on with him or to share the escapades of my family. He kept up with everyone on Facebook, a treasure for those who are away from the action. His pain was increasing. He had fallen a few times through the years and the fire department rescued him. He never stopped praising their kindnesses to him. He screamed in pain when he moved and was now going to bed at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon to get off his cart seat. I could tell other things were starting to go bad as he described his ailments.

The final weekend, I was going to the store and called to see if he needed anything. When I couldn’t reach him, I went to his house and couldn’t get in with my key. I called 911 and they told me they had taken him to the hospital the day before. When I got to the hospital, he was on a respirator and sedated and I was never able to talk to him again. He had made the 911 call himself and had to be put on the machine before they got any information. He fought all the way. His doctor told me he had seen him before and Jim had told him he had no family. I wasn’t surprised. He wouldn’t have wanted me to worry. He always called me after he had been taken care of. I told the doctor I was here, as were other members of the family, and he was very glad. He didn’t want him to be alone at the end.

That last decision I made was per his directive, so it was really his decision. It wasn’t fun or lovely or anything peaceful. It was the right thing to do, to let nature take its course, which was to let him quit suffering. Since then, I’ve been spending time in his house, going through the papers and belongings I need to take care of. I know people don’t want to do this kind of thing, but I find it kind of peaceful and revealing. You relive the person’s life when you have to touch everything.

My brother’s house was and is a mess. I always looked around, dreading the day when I would have to figure out what was necessary around there. His strength those last years all went to breathing and moving, so everything else is left where he put it, in piles all around. I could have offered to help him with it, but he wouldn’t have let me. So I dig through, finding treasures and learning more and more about my brother every day.

He read a lot. A lot. There are some wonderful books there. I haven’t been through his record collection yet and don’t know what shape they are in. And Jim wrote a lot. Quite a lot. I write the stuff you see here and I write reports and emails and other things, but Jim wrote books and plays and poems and letters and letters to the editors. We didn’t always agree on politics and I don’t always have some of the same interests in topics, but I do know he could write. That was his dream actually. I keep finding new things to save for later. I know more about his inner self all the time. Nothing I didn’t expect or know, but I’m finding it all on paper.

I’m remembering more through all my exploring. Our last conversations flash back at me and I realize he was remembering more too. At the end, he was trying to maintain his last shred of dignity, in his words, and he was facing a limited, painful future. But he was facing it bravely with no excuses, no blame and more strength than I can imagine. He told me stories of his travels and people he met, things I had never heard before.

The thing that stands out to me about my brother through all the things I have known about him through the years is that he was always, always there for me. He was non-judgmental when others were. He was supportive and loving at all times. I always, always knew how much he loved me. Always.

The last time I saw him, he described a morning on the White River, fishing in a deep fog in one of the places he considered most beautiful on earth. His tone was reverent while he told me this memory, reliving something very special to him and he told me he had taken a photo. Yesterday, I reached into a random box and found a sack of packages of photos. The first ones I saw jumped out at me. You know that feeling you get when you see something and you know what it is.  And I knew that this was where my brother’s heaven would be, the place he requested his ashes be scattered. The White River near Bull Shoals in Arkansas is where I will picture him from now on. Happy Fishing, Little Brother. I love you.Scan 328

There are some ugly words out there, some of them mean and cruel, racist epithets, hateful terms.  But there are a couple that I find the ugliest of all.

The first one is Cancer.  If you hear this word, no matter what you know or who it’s about, you immediately think DEATH.  Tell me you don’t automatically go there, no matter how many people you know who have beat it or are in remission.  In those first shocking seconds, that’s what makes you gasp!  From what I’ve read, it’s always there and it just gets a foothold on us when our immune system is down or we suffer a trauma or many other reasons.  And it never really goes away, even if you’re in remission for years.  You may never have another occurrence, but it is always hanging there.  If it’s active or recent, you live from scan to scan.  Even after the all clear, there has got to be a gulp before a doctor’s visit or every time you feel a twinge or ache.  It’s not a death sentence for all, thank goodness, but it’s still pretty devastating to hear it said.  I’ve lived through it with my husband and son, both of them gone because of the disease & the treatments, and with friends, some who lived through it, some who are still dealing with it and some who are now gone.  It’s just an ugly word.

The second ugliest word to me is Widow.  I looked it up and it’s been used since before the 12th century.  That’s what it feels like…archaic.  It comes from Middle English, Old English, Old High German and Latin variations of the word.  The Latin word, videre, means to separate.  I learned that widowhood is also called viduity.  That’s an obscure, strange term that sounds like…what does that sound like?  Anyway, widower doesn’t seem to have the same ugly sound to me.  Widowers are men, sad and lonely, who most often will find another woman as quickly as they can.  That’s kind of cold, but it’s very often, not always, true.  This doesn’t mean they didn’t love their wives, but it’s just a male thing.  I’m not making a blanket statement, just an observation.  There are always exceptions.

I don’t know what the label Widow does to most women, but I didn’t like it.  It’s a strange word to check on forms, an ugly word for a strange club you never wanted to join (as another widow friend of mine said).  Here’s what the word conjures up to me.


Now, tell me the truth.  Isn’t that the image that jumps to mind?  Some variation of this, at least.  Especially the wringing the handkerchief part.  At least this one isn’t wearing a black veil.  I’m not trying to be flip about it, because it is a painful, painful state of being at first.  Your heart is ripped apart, if you loved your husband, and you feel like you’ve been torn in two.  It’s not an easy thing and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  I know people who have suffered through this at all ages, although I guess at some point as you get older, you suspect it will happen to you or your spouse.  Even then, it’s not easy and can still be a shock.  My parents were married over 50 years and my mother was devastated.  She was a strong woman, but this was her life.  Like all of life, everyone handles it differently, hence, the merry widow, the black widow, etc.

I don’t know where I’m going with this but it was on my mind since I’m marking 15 years of living with this label.  I still think of him every day, I still miss him, I can still hear his voice.  Mostly, I remember with love and humor and I’m lucky to see him in our children and grandchildren.  My life isn’t like I pictured it when I was young and in love.  It’s not even how I pictured it when I was turning 50, but it’s pretty darn good.  Maybe because I know how loved I’ve been all my life.  But, that crappy word.  What can we do about that?  Or would any word be just as bad?  Just ugly, ugly, ugly!





My first instinct is to ignore the fact that my son died two years ago today, but people keep telling me they’re thinking of me and I feel obligated to share.  I wasn’t dreading this day, wasn’t even thinking about it, but here it is.  You know the things people say when they don’t know what to say…it’s not natural to lose your child, he was too young, he had so much more to do.  We all say them, but living them is a little different.

I was a little less in shock when Clay died because I had already lost my husband.  I guess I can thank him for giving me experience in the loss of a loved one to help me through.  It’s still a shock and it hurts.  It’s another splintering of your heart, another mending with scars growing to keep your heart functioning.  But, we keep on going.  Or not.  Those are the choices.  Last night I saw a character on a tv show ask another one how she was able to smile when she had lost several members of her family.  The one with the losses said she chooses to smile.  So do I.

One of my wisdoms of life is that we are never ready to lose those we love.  It doesn’t matter if it is a sudden death or after a long illness or a long life…we’re never ready.  We can be told that the person will die in the next five minutes and we’re still totally unprepared for the shock of them being here and then they’re not.  Where are they?  They were just here…where did they go?  Your beliefs may help you, but it’s still a shock.  I know this for sure!

Every person deals with loss differently.  Here’s what I do.  First, when you lose a loved one, you feel like the whole world has gone on while your world has stopped.  When you crawl out of your immediate grief, you find that you aren’t alone.  At my son’s service, I was struck by how many people I know who have lost a child.  For a bit, it seemed like everyone I saw had lost a child and all I could think was how ill prepared I was to relate to them at the time of their loss.  There were children lost to accidents, murder, disease, car wrecks, suicides…all manner of horrible losses, all the same pain for the parents.  We all have loss in our lives…death is part of life.  With children, we are always lucky to have them for as long as we do.  I’m amazed that we don’t lose more of them when they’re little because we can’t watch them every minute, no matter how hard we try.  It doesn’t matter if we lose a child as a baby, toddler, child, teen or adult…we don’t want to lose them ever.  They grow within us or we bring them into our lives in another way and they attach themselves to our hearts.  It seems like every day is a challenge to keep them here with us as we struggle with our parental responsibilities.  We grieve when our children die for what we will miss with them and for what others will miss.  We wanted them to live longer than we will because they were the way that our selves would continue after we are gone.  It doesn’t always work that way even if we want to believe it.

Life is a cycle.  I’ve learned to contemplate this truth, helped by the fact that the deaths I’ve endured have been balanced by the joy of life.  When my husband died, we had three brand new grandsons to help me through.  It was hard to grieve the loss of one life when you needed to rejoice at the new ones.  When my son died, we had his 15 month old daughter to keep us balanced.  She didn’t understand the enormity of her loss and her joy of life keeps a smile on our faces even when we think of all he and she will miss together.  Who knows anyway…she seems to know he’s with her in ways we can’t even comprehend.

None of us know how long our life will be or how long anyone we know will live.  I just saw a statistic that there are now 7 billion people on the earth, up a billion from not too long ago.  Even with people dying, we have more people.  We can’t all live to be old – we’re just like other animals and plants and everything else on the planet.  We have a life cycle of our own and our only job is to try and make the best of the time we have, however long that may be.  I know that I’ve had loss and will have other losses, which I dread, but I will try to keep them all in the universal perspective.

I’m a photo nut and have been since I was a little girl.  I like any kind of photo and love that they capture a moment, a look, a thought, a place.  When my husband died, I remember looking for photos, knowing that there would be no more.  I gathered all I could, getting a picture of his life and it was comforting to know it had been a complete one, even if it ended before I wanted it to – or before he wanted it to.  With my son, I have an album of pictures of his life on my computer – I’ve shared it before.  It’s my screen saver, so I see a slide show of pieces of his life every time my computer is winding down.  It’s comforting for me because the images bring back memories of a sweet impish funny caring little boy who was always uniquely himself and carried those traits throughout his life, enriching the lives of those who knew him.  And new pictures surface here and there, little surprises, that add another moment to the hours I wasn’t with him or teach me something new about him.  I smile a lot.

A couple of months after Clay died, a friend lost her son in a car wreck.  She gave me a book that she was given, a little book, “Healing After Loss” by Martha Whitmore Hickman.  It’s a book of daily devotions written by an author who lost her 12 year old daughter years ago.  I say she is Christian, but it’s a book I would give to anyone because she uses quotes from all religions and thoughts that anyone can relate to.  She writes to people, not based on your beliefs or lack of them.  A page a day.  I read it just about every day and go back to read the ones I missed if I’ve forgotten.  I’m on my second or third round.  It’s amazingly relevant for life in general.  I’ve been given and read lots of poems, books, etc on loss and grief.  This one is my favorite.  I have it on my iPad and iPhone – I’ve given away several copies of the paperback.  It’s not for everyone, but it might help someone.

So another anniversary has come and they’re never as bad for me as just some random memory.  I still flinch at the sound of ambulances and jump when the phone rings and have flashbacks at odd times that I have to push away from.  Holidays aren’t so bad because I’m surrounded by family and we laugh and share funny stories.  I’m lucky that my loss of my son is softened by having his daughter near.  I feel the huge responsibility to her and my other grandchildren to keep on living as healthy a life as I can so I can share stories with them and give them a sense of the family they won’t get to know.  For my son’s daughter, I have a box of stories about her father, copies of photos and videos for her to understand a little bit about who he was and what his life meant to all of us.  I collect the funny things his friends write about him and the things I find.  Someday, she can go through and read them all.  At three, she is beginning to look at stories of “baby Daddy” and relate to the fact that he was once little like she is.  I gave her a necklace with a picture of them together and she told me it is “bootiful.”  My heart melts.

I had a memory of Clay a couple of weeks ago that came out of nowhere.  He had just gotten back home after his treatment for cancer in Seattle.  The radiation hadn’t begun to change his ability to talk and eat yet and he was feeling grateful for having been able to have this new treatment.  When we were at the hospital in Seattle, he told me how much seeing the little children with cancer affected him.  One of the first things he did when he got home was go to the hospital and volunteer to help by visiting other cancer patients.  They loved him there as he was one of their youngest volunteers.  Even as a volunteer myself, I thought it was remarkable that he could give back in that way.  I’m not sure I would have wanted to go near the hospital, but he didn’t think about himself.  The internet was somewhat new in 2001, at least in our home.  He went online and found a community of people with the same rare cancer he had and reached out to them.  I thought he was finding out more for himself, but I happened to see some of his exchanges since we shared the computer.  He was comforting them, helping them through it.

I don’t know why that memory popped into my mind, but it’s one of the things that helps.  This boy of mine lived a complete life for the time he had on this earth.  He lived and laughed and loved for all his days.  May we all do so well with the time we are given.