Help Me Make It Through the Night

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The telephone awakened me from a sound sleep. My bedside clock showed that it was a few minutes past 1:00am. Caller ID on my phone informed me that the caller was my friend, Bill. What could he want to talk about at this hour of the night. We had talked earlier in the evening for almost an hour.

Bill apologized for waking me up. The sound of his voice told me that something was wrong. I couldn’t get him to share with me what was on his mind, or why he called me at this ungodly hour, even though I asked him more than once what was the matter. Rather than quiz him further or demand an explanation, which it was obvious I wasn’t going to get, I simply asked him, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Talk to me, “ he replied. “Please help me make it through the night.”

Only a couple of days earlier we had been talking on the phone about our favorite song writers, and Kris Kristofferson came up in the conversation, where we had agreed that we both liked his music, and this song in particular.

“Talk to me,” he repeated.

“Would you like for me to tell you a story?” I asked.

“Yes, please.”

Drawing from my writing and my collection of days, I began telling him about a game my sister and I played as children, Runaway Orphans. Since Bill and I both grew up in the same town, he was familiar with the places my sister and I visited when we played this special game. I embellished the story and added drama to it in an attempt to entertain Bill with its telling and perhaps help him get whatever was troubling him off of his mind.

When I finished, he said to me, “Tell me another one.”

I then went into the story about the day I ran away from home when I was five years old.

“Another one?”

I dug deeper into my childhood, recalling our family tradition of making homemade peach ice cream on the Fourth of July every year and about my job of sitting on top of the churn while Daddy turned the crank. From there, I went into the story about my special brother, Johnny, and a story about my daddy’s pocket watch. As I finished this story, I realized I had been talking for well over two hours, and that it was very quiet on the other end of the line.

“Are you still there? Are you feeling any better now?” I asked.

Bill’s voice, barely above a whisper, answered, “Yes, I think I am.”

“Do you want me to tell you any more stories?”

“No, I think I’ll be ok now. Thank you.” And he hung up, leaving me wondering what had just happened. It was now 4:30am.

Bill never told me why he needed me that night. The next evening when we talked, I commented, “Well, we made it through the night last night, didn’t we?”

“Yes, “ he said. “And it was no small feat. I’ll forever be grateful to you for staying on the phone with me all night long.”

I never learned what was troubling Bill that night. Over the course of our three-year friendship, I discovered that he had his own demons he was battling, and little by little, one by one, he shared a few of them with me. He also recalled tidbits of his history and life as a journalist – he truly had the gift of the story teller, and could have me laughing uncontrollably or sympathizing with tears running down my face as he’d relate a tale from his past.

Bill also encouraged me as a writer. He never completely understood my style of writing – I am not a journalist or reporter, but a weaver of tales and a painter using words instead of paint of my memories and adventures through life. He would sometimes tell me that I needed to step away and be more objective in my writing, that I put too much of myself into it. I’d politely disagree with him, and he’d keep on complimenting me on my writing, even though I didn’t take this piece of advice. He said on many occasions that I was a better writer than he was. That wasn’t true. He was a gifted writer, a diligent researcher, and an extraordinary communicator through the written word. I could never do what he did.

One thing that Bill told me often was that he didn’t believe he would live to be an old man. He once said that he didn’t think he would live to see 70. And he was right. I guess he somehow knew his limits and sensed his life span. When a classmate of ours died recently, he told me he thought he might be next. I wish he had been wrong.

Bill was my friend. My heart is aching as I write tonight. I’ll miss hearing his voice, listening to him telling me about his latest writing assignment, and being the recipient of his praise and admiration of me and my writing.

I wish I could have had the chance to say goodbye.

“I don’t care what’s right or wrong,

I don’t try to understand.

Let the devil take tomorrow.

Lord, tonight I need a friend.

Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow’s out of sight.

And it’s sad to be alone.

Help me make it through the night.”

“Help Me Make It Through the Night” by Kris Kristofferson

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When I Die…

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It has been a month since my son-in-law’s almost-ninety-year-old mother, Marta, died. Roy is grieving, and rightly so. He and his mom were very close, and he was the youngest of her five sons. Like me, he was the “baby” of the family. Marta was a lovely and spunky lady, full of vim and vigor, and overflowing with love for her family. Besides that, she was a great cook, and a very savvy EBay trader. She is missed by many, many people.

This brings me to a conversation I had with my son, Brian, last night on the phone. Roy is Brian’s partner, and they have been in a loving relationship for over 15 years. They are devoted to each other.

After Marta’s death, I wrote both of my sons a letter, detailing phone numbers of family and friends, bank account and insurance policy numbers, retirement savings information, location of my legal papers, passport, usernames and passwords, and such, and a brief statement of the kind of sending off I’d like to have when I die. I did this mainly because Marta’s death struck a chord within me that I am not invincible. I also have experienced the deaths of four very good friends in my age group since Christmas, friends who shouldn’t be old enough yet to die.

Brian asked me how long should he mourn for me when I die. Tough question!

My answer was not a simple or straightforward one. One week, two weeks, a month, a year? It all depends….

If I die a sudden or unexpected death at a young-ish age (I am now 68 years old, and still consider myself young in many respects), I would think that the mourning period might be extended longer than I would expect if I should die of natural causes or some old-age illness. From my experience, it takes longer to accept and recover from a loved one’s sudden death.

This was the case with my dad. He died at the age of 85 from a heart attack while sleeping. Very sudden. Not expected. He was a healthy and vigorous man in most respects. It took quite awhile for the fact that he was gone to sink in, and for the mourning to end. There were a lot of things left unsaid between me and my dad, and I never got the chance to say (or think) goodbye to him before he was gone.

Within a year of my dad’s death, my mother began having some minor health issues. She was mourning and missing my dad, and we thought this might be part of the healing process for her. It turned out that it wasn’t. Nine months after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she died peacefully in her sleep. My sister and I shared the responsibility of caring for her through surgery, chemotherapy, and hopefully, healing. By the time her chemo treatments had ended, we knew that her time was limited. She just wasn’t rebounding or getting well. We loved on her and cherished her the last few months of her life. We had the chance to prepare for her leaving us, and when it happened, we knew we had done the right things and had loved her through to the end. Perhaps we never verbally said goodbye to her, but in our hearts, we did, making her passing into eternity a little less traumatic for us.

This brings me back to my son’s question. In the document I prepared for him and his brother, I requested to be cremated when I die. I do not want a funeral service, but want my friends and family to get together and have a party celebrating my life, and theirs. There should be lots of wine and margaritas, plenty of unhealthy food to eat, great music, and good times. It would be nice if they would recall some funny stories about me to share and remember, bringing laughter and joy to the occasion. I then want my sons to spread my ashes in a place, or places, that is meaningful to them. It’s not important to me, but I want it to be special for them.

After all this is accomplished, I don’t want any more mourning. Remembering me is ok. Missing me is ok. Wishing I could be there to witness an accomplishment or special event in their lives, or to share a beautiful sunset, is ok. Wanting to talk to me about a problem is ok. Shedding a tear every now and then is ok. But please don’t wear the black cloak of mourning over me. That is not ok.

We also talked briefly about the possible future of nursing homes and hospice. We both agree that hospice is a very good thing, but have mixed feelings about nursing homes. Jokingly, we agreed that he can put a pillow over my head or take me out to the woods and shoot me if I should ever get to the point where I don’t know who I am and need full-time nursing care. I’m not quite ready to discuss this topic seriously with him, so it was better to keep it lighthearted last night. Which we did.

I think Brian feels better after our conversation. I know that I do. I raised my two boys to be wonderful, independent, smart, caring, and loving men. I think they will instinctively know what to do when the time comes to bid me farewell.

I plan to stick around for quite awhile yet. I have a lot more living, loving, and writing to do! But when I leave, please keep the mourning short and sweet!

I’ll be watching, you know!

My Friend, Big John

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I had to say goodbye to a very special friend today. When we were teenagers, he was Johnny, but when we reunited in 2008, he was affectionately known by everyone he knew as Big John.

I didn’t know that today was going to be the day. If I had known, I would have gone to his house for a visit yesterday. I’ve been going over to see him almost every week for the past two years. When his health declined, he asked me if I would pick up his mail at the post office for him. Of course, I said I would, and even during the times when he was better and able to drive, I still got his mail. I think he enjoyed my visits, and didn’t want them to stop. I enjoyed them, too, and never suggested that I return his mailbox key. Some afternoons he’d phone me and ask me to stop and pick up a hamburger or fish dinner for him, or something from the grocery store, on my way home from work. I was always happy to do so.

I found him this morning when I delivered his mail. The door was open, and his keys were still in the lock. I called out his name, with no response. I stepped into the house, wondering why the door wasn’t closed. He hadn’t answered the phone when I called him to tell him I was on my way, like he usually did. I knew something wasn’t right. He was in his lounge chair – asleep, I thought – at first. I didn’t want to disturb him. I knew he had trouble sleeping, and recently had been having problems with his breathing. I didn’t want to startle him, but then it sunk in. I gently touched his arm, feeling its coolness and knew he was gone.

I stood next to him for a few minutes wishing he would wake up, but knowing he wouldn’t. He looked so peaceful resting there, my heart sang and wept in harmony. Finally, I pulled out my phone from my pocket and dialed 9-1-1.

Soon a police officer arrived, followed by paramedics, and then the coroner.

I knew this day was coming. Just last week on my visit with Big John, I sensed something different – maybe a look in his eyes? Or was there something in his voice when I asked him how he was doing, and his reply, as always, was, “I’m doing well. What have you been up to?” Or the way he hugged me, and said when I got ready to leave, “I love ya, darlin’.” I stayed longer that day than I usually did; I didn’t want to go. I told a friend later in the day that I didn’t believe Big John would be with us much longer. But I’m not ready to say goodbye today.

Big John helped me through the toughest two years of my life. He listened, offered advice, propped me up when I was weak and frightened, and cheered me on during those dark days. I will forever be grateful to him for his love, his loyalty, and for the special bond of friendship that we shared. I think he was Big John because he had such a big, big heart.

So now, my friend, I must say goodbye. Soar with the angels on warm and gentle winds, free from the oxygen tubes and insulin needles that held you down.

Please check on me now and then, Big John. I’ll be watching for you.

Terrorist Attack in The Henhouse

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It was a terrorist attack like none I’ve ever experienced.

Yesterday morning, my friend, George, phoned me to tell me some bad news. When he had gone down to the henhouse to feed the hens, he found dead chickens strewed all over the lower pasture and in the henhouse. Feathers were blowing in the wind everywhere. When he began picking up the carnage, he discovered that most of them were intact except for their heads. Whatever had killed them had done it for the sport of killing, not for food. The total count of chickens who had been killed was 21, including the one rooster. The fifteen survivors were traumatized and jittery. George said that they didn’t flock to him when he took them their morning feed, but ran away from him.

“What about Grace?” I asked him hesitantly, thinking about the little hen that meant so much to us.

George paused a few seconds, and then said, “Grace didn’t make it. I was hoping she was ok, but then I saw the green leg tag. I didn’t want to have to tell you this.”

My eyes filled with tears as I thought of my special little hen, the one who taught me so much about grace and gratitude last summer. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being terrorized and running for her life from some unknown terrorist predator. My heart was broken, not only for her, but for the others who had died that night.

He told me that it looked like the hens had been running everywhere, trying to escape whatever it was that was after them. He found bodies in the henhouse, out on the woodpile, near the barn, and in the pasture. None had been mutilated or eaten, other than some of them missing their heads.

There were no eggs yesterday. The remaining hens were recovering from the night of terror. George gathered them up last night and put them in an enclosed stall in the barn where he had kept the baby chickens last spring until they were big enough to join the flock. He knew they would be safe there.

This morning, we were greeted by clucking coming from the barn, and when I went into the stall, there were eight eggs in the nests. It was as if nothing had happened. Life goes on, even for hens.

As I walked across the pasture, looking at the feathers littered everywhere as a reminder of what had happened, I thought about how senseless this was. These animals weren’t looking for food. They weren’t hungry. They were just plain mean, wanting to do nothing more than kill for the sport of killing, attacking in the dark of night, and then moving on, leaving only death and destruction in their path. It reminded me of the human terrorist attacks that have been happening around the world, and it made me sick. To me, there seemed to be no difference between these animals and the human animals who kill other people for no good reason at all.

I don’t understand it, but then there are lots of things about life and living in this world that I don’t understand. One could say that it is nature’s way in regard to the animal terrorist behavior, but I can’t accept it as an excuse for people doing terrible things to other people. Terrorism isn’t nature’s way for us as God’s children. Animals don’t know any better.

But we should.