“I don’t want the doctor’s death. I want to have my own freedom.”

Well Mom, after last year I thought about this date nearly everyday for the past two months; memory be dammed, it’s going to be on time today.

You know, there is something that I want to write about you, something rather … complex, for lack of a better word. But it’s not quite there yet — not quite ready for public consumption. But it’s close. I started to write it several days ago, but it’s meh.

So in the meantime, let me just say what I always say: eighteen years may have past, but I still love you and I still miss you; you are gone, but never forgotten, as long as I draw breath.

“Je m’en vais chercher le grand peut-être.”

Well Dad, it has been 11 years now; for Mom next month will be 18. It all seems like a lifetime ago now, and yet even now just a passing thought can bring it all back. I suppose that’s to be expected though.

Of course your hat — a fedora, is it? — and Mom’s dammit doll still have pride of place in my living room, and your cemetery is little more than an hour away. I guess it is little wonder that you are both still in my thoughts, even now.

May 12, 1927 to Dec. 16, 2008. Gone, yes. But as long as I draw breath, never forgotten …

P.S. Props to François Rabelais.

It Seems Like Yesterday

That's me on Xmas Eve, 1973. My neighbor Mr. Walker was Santa.
That’s me on Xmas Eve, 1973. My neighbor Mr. Walker was Santa.

Well Mom, 17 years have come and gone and I’ve missed my usual deadline by several months now, but I have my reasons — or reason, as it were — which I’ll get to in a moment. And it is not the first; there was that little health problem I had a few years back, for example. And I suppose it’s rather ironic that I began writing this post on Mother’s Day, after all, but the timing is merely coincidental.

You see, back in mid-January I had wanted to write about a memory that I have about you — a happy one.

I was four or five, I think, and I had woken up early and wandered down the hall and into the living room — it was early Christmas Day, and I was excited — to say the least — to see what Santa Clause had brought me. Dad was sitting on the other side of the room beside the fireplace, sweeping out last night’s ashes to prepare for another fire, and you were standing there in your housecoat looking down at me, hands placed jauntily on your hips and a big smile on your face, your eyes dancing with delight. Dancing, I say, because my five-year-old self was nearly bursting with excitement, eyes big as proverbial saucers as they took in the seemingly endless bounty spilling out from under the Christmas tree.

I don’t really remember what you had said at that moment, or what Dad had said in reply, if anything. But then a host of angels could have appeared above our heads announcing with fanfare that Hell had, indeed, frozen over, but I wouldn’t have heard. The angels could even have said that the Bengals would now be cleared to win the Superbowl, what with the wintery weather in Hell and whatnot; I would scarcely have noticed.

For I was consumed with lust for brightly wrapped presents.

And yet, as I ran and slid to my pajama-clad knees underneath that tree amidst all those gifts, I remember suddenly being astonished as I heard you yell — yell! — at the top of your lungs: “Ken and Greg! Wake up! It’s Santa Clause time!” I remember turning around, open-mouthed, to stare at you. There you were, just as you were a moment ago, all smiles, your head silhouetted by the grey light slipping through the dining room windows behind you. And as you shouted again I began laughing with glee myself as I tore into the wrapping paper, because it was okay, on this particular day, to yell happily in the middle of the living room.

Mom and me -- I think -- in 1970, or thereabouts.
Mom and me — I think — in 1970, or thereabouts. Not at Xmas, of course — there are few photos of Mom, because she was usually the one taking photos.

This was Christmas Day, after all. Of course I doubt my two older brothers — both in their teens at this point — were quite so amused as I was then, but that’s as may be.

Now I don’t remember much else about this particular Christmas; it’s all a blur. And to be honest I’m not sure, after 45-odd years, where exactly my memory ends and artistic embellishment begins. But I remember you standing in the living room smiling and hollering for Ken and Greg; of that I am sure. In fact I’ll probably take that memory to the grave myself — even, perhaps inevitably, as more recent memories are forgotten.

Or will I? I wonder …

You see I was sitting at my desk, much like I am now, wrapped up in the reverie bought on by old memories. As my hands moved to the keyboard my mind reached deep into that well for the particular memory laid out above — and it wasn’t there. It was gone only for the briefest of moments — albeit one that contained an ocean of regret, heart break and despair in the meantime — and then there it came, up from the depths, this memory suddenly playing out in my mind’s eye once more.

And yet still I paused, for then I had a greater realization of what had just happened. Was it just a momentary lapse? Or a symptom of something much worse: the first lapse of memory in an eventual string of such lapses on the inevitable decline into dementia? None of us siblings had yet known how you had struggled with memory those last few years, although Dad certainly knew. Is that what fate has in store for me?

So I took my hands away from the keyboard while I sat and pondered, and minutes turned to hours to days and so on; eventually winter turned to spring.

And here we are.

Now Mom you are probably thinking “Oh honey, just because you momentarily forgot something at 50 that happened when you were five is NOT a sign of senile dementia. Good grief!” Well you are probably right; I’m just being a hypochondriac. While genetics may be factor, other factors like lifestyle choices play a much bigger role.

So what else can I say? I do worry though, occasionally, in more of an … observational sense, than anything else, for if it does happen, there is nothing I can do.

But as I say I do worry, for memories of you and Dad — memories like this one — are all I have left.

Ten Years Gone …

It was a decade ago today — and even somewhat close to the hour, as best that I can recall — that my father died. A decade that has been filled with tumult, not the least of which was my own passing visit with the Grim Reaper — a visit that will have its own five-year … “celebration” … on my personal calendar in less than two weeks. Funny that things like my hemorrhagic stroke, my severed quadriceps tendon, Dad’s death, Mom’s long and painful death — they all seem to occur around this time of year. …

 I know I rarely post here anymore, and no one ever reads anything here (or anywhere) anymore, despite all the traffic I seem to get (thanks Russian hackers!). Yes, I know everyone in the world has graduated to Assbook Facebook and whatnot (and most times in some sort of asinine outrage; it seems everyone has turned into Comic Book Guy now), and I wish them well. You know how it is: I just don’t care, yadda yadda yadda. The sudden and unexpected brush with death and the ensuing long recovery seems to have put a lot of the minutia of life — all of it, really — in perspective.

And yet I still feel the need to mark this macabre day.

So Dad, just let me say, as always, you are gone but never forgotten …

Stroke has Struck Me

Could be a winner boy, ya move quite well …

So maybe you’ve been wondering where I’ve been; it’s been a year and seven months, after all. Just what, exactly, have I been up to?

Did I get caught up with my camera? Did I get lost in the sites and smells of Southeast Asia? Did I get involved in political intrigue there in Bangkok (and there has been a lot of it, lately). Did I finally write that book? Did I chuck it all for the simple life of a Buddhist monk?

Unfortunately, it was none of those things.

My brain on a hematoma ...
“There is a 4.5×2.3×3.1cm mild heterogeneous hyperdense hematoma in left basal ganglion with
moderate surrounding brain edema involving left periventricular white matter, temporal and insular
region; subacute stage of hematoma is possible. There is mass effect, resulting in mild rightward
shifting of midline structure about 2.7mm and obliteration perimesencephalic cistern with mass effect
to left-side midbrain.”

On December 23, just a few days shy of my 45 birthday, I had a stroke — a hemorrhagic stroke, to be precise. You see there are two different kinds of stroke we are worried about, ischemic and hemorrhagic. The vast majority are ischemic, some 80 to 85 percent. The rest are hemorrhagic — essentially the bulk are blood clots in the brain; I had to be part of the “lucky” few who actually had blood in the brain.

So let’s have a look at our hemorrhagic stroke victims. Most of those who don’t get to a hospital right away end up dead; of those that do get to a hospital quickly, half still succumb after the first day or two. The trouble is, I didn’t know this — I didn’t know any of it until well after fact (and lucky that I could learn it at all).

Incidentally, that picture of my brain, taken Dec. 29, is taken from the bottom, looking up, so everything is reversed.

According to the doctors, there was no underlying factor, as far as they could determine. I was overweight then, but I didn’t have high blood pressure or anything like that. It’s “just one of those things.”

All I knew was that at sometime that afternoon, I had, well … something bad. I was sitting in my chair and when I stood up — I fell down. Repeatedly. It was all I could do to make it into bed; my right leg and arm were useless. That’s pretty much all I remember for the next few days, a confusing blur of falling down repeatedly on the way to and from my bed to the bathroom. I don’t remember it but I a took out the bathroom sink during one fall.

After a few days friends started dropping by on Christmas Day; they were concerned they hadn’t seen me in a while. I vaguely remember asking them to come back later; I wasn’t in any condition to answer the door.

It was late on the third day — this would be December 26 — when I finally let someone in the door. By then I was feeling well enough to actually answer it. The next day, my birthday, I decided to visit that hospital. I thought I was just humoring friends, I thought, but the hospital folk took one look at me and ushered me in. You can guess the rest.

Well sort of.

The last I remember is the emergency room on the 27th of December; I woke up on January 4 in ICU. What happened? I don’t really know for sure, but It seems I had a relapse; the bleeding had stopped before but began again. I remember none of  that, from the time checked in until I came to in ICU. Seven days — a week — just gone.

Apparently whatever gains I made in the early days — my leg, my arm — were gone, too. My right hand and arm were just so much meat attached to my torso; my leg wasn’t much better. To say I was a lousy patient — at first — was an understatement.

Eleven days after waking up, I was discharged to an “extended care facility”— nursing home for short — for a month. My leg was good enough for short periods without much help but I still had an ambulance ride out to country where the home was. The staff of the home was great, although it took a few days to get used to showering with help — fully clothed of coarse (them, not me). But I had learned after my first few days in ICU that nurses generally knew what was up.

And what do you know? A few weeks later at the nursing home I could bend my index finger. By the time I checked out a few weeks later I could bend all of my fingers and could walk — within reason — with only the slightest of limps and no help.

Since then it’s been therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. Six days a week, and between that and what I pursue on my own, between gym and at-home workouts, it’s been a full-time job, getting better.

I came home last August, finally, after the doctor signed off and let me fly. So … it’s been over a year now.

Have I gotten better?

Well that depends. What is better? At five months a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time talked with me for 20 minutes before he learned I had had a stroke, and that was because I mentioned it in passing. According to him I’m “better,” or at least nearly so.

I can’t deny it; I’m a very fortunate man who rarely lets a day go by without giving thanks. And yet when I look at my hand and think about my handwriting or my typing — I typed this, for the most part, with my left hand because my right still isn’t up to the task — or when I look at the muscles of my right side in a mirror, I can’t help but think I’ve got months still to go.

Still.

You’re so together boy

Oh, you handsome devil
I swear my nose isn’t that crooked. And how ’bout those horns? Flashed with me my right hand, no less.

And in some ways I think I won’t get better, at least like I was before. My hand writing will never be the same regardless of which hand I use in the future. And even if my right hand continues still to improve — I typed this sentence with both hands, albeit slowly; a month ago I couldn’t — there are things I’ll do left-handed now (I’m right handed, in case anyone needed me to clarify that — well I was. Kind of sloppily ambidextrous now, I guess).

Then there is the brain itself. Fortunately my aneurysm was a relatively small one, about 4.5cm at its widest point, at the base of my brain, namely my left basal ganglia (hence no operation for me). While the motor pathways for my right side are gone, my brain found — is finding — alternate pathways to use.

Huzzah?

Then there was — and is — my attention span. Back in the hospital I could concentrate for about five minutes on a problem before me brain was done; when I got out of the nursing home a month later I was good for 15 minutes. Six months ago I could go for an hour or two before I need a brake, preferably a lengthy one.

Today, I’m more or less back to normal, with regard to my attention span. But what of the rest? My speech and speaking voice are shadows of what they once were, for example, in terms of being heard and understood. One day, it’s okay, the next … not so much.

Time will tell.

But that’s okay.

Maybe it’s just because I had a hemorrhagic stroke and lived to tell about it. Maybe it’s because that after a year of therapy and working out, I’m better than most survivors — I walk into the gym, after all.

Besides, there is a bright side. I weigh the same as I did in high school, for the first time since high school.

Time will tell.

‘Til Death Do Us Part

Death In the Circle of Life: Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand

I found a small treasure trove of photos I took in Nong Khai at Sala Keoku back in April, 2010, that I never posted to my Flickr account or anywhere else. Huzzah.

Here’s the first of many that will make their way into archive editions of the Photo a Day:

One of the many works at Sala Keoku created by Bunleua Sulilat outside Nong Khai, Thailand

A little bit more about the park’s creator, Bunleua Sulilat. I’ll have to write more about this place later; for now it’s late and I’m sleepy.

Life and Death: a Photo a Day

Entropy Spares No One, Not Even Flowers in a Photo a Day

I actually took these on two separate occasions — obviously — a little while ago, but haven’t posted them elsewhere. And I didn’t see anything ineresting that piqued my photographer’s eye today. Of course Ansel Adams, et al, would say that’s my fault, as opposed to the world at large, and I would not argue.

But I’ve been wanting to post these somewhere. The same flower, a few weeks apart. I’ve been meaning to get a third shot, but I keep forgetting when I find myself back in this particular location. …

Anyway, once again, the trusty Nokia N8 serves for Jeff Chappell’s Photo a Day (or rather, in this case, photos)

Need cheering up? Here’s a (slightly) more happy, somewhat amusing (if I do say so myself) discussion of entropy.

a flower bursting with life ...

... and then a flower withering in death ...

 

On This, An Anniversary of a Mother’s Death

IMG_0088-sunsetLike with Dad, there’s not much for me to say that I haven’t said before, Mom, except perhaps to say that nothing has really changed. Time passes; life goes on. And I enjoy it, for the most part. Perhaps more some; perhaps even more than most — I couldn’t really say. There are the distractions of living in a foreign country and a new language to learn and all that this entails; I’m even making that last official by attending classes.

And yet, and yet. There is a Mom-shaped hole in my psyche that, while scarred over, will never completely heal. I believe in the past I used the analogy of a severed limb; you can learn to live without it, and with the time the stump heals and scars over. But one is never the same despite how well you learn to live without it; the limb never grows back.

This January 19, this, the twelfth anniversary of your death — it staggers me, frankly, that so much time has passed between this moment and then — found me in a beach town in Thailand visiting with friends both local and abroad. We celebrated and got up to hi-jinx and played the drunken tourists. I raged against the dying of the light; I thumbed my nose at entropy and death. I enjoyed the beach and the company and the local rotgut (which to be fair is pretty good rum, actually) and practiced my pidgin Thai — this all interspersed with my quiet time in a cafe in the company of no one and nothing but a cappuccino and a book (one must balance the pleasures of the mind with the pleasures of the flesh — although coffee clearly falls in the latter).

In short, it’s pretty much the prescription for a perfect weekend, one to take your mind off your troubles past and present (not that I have any real troubles, at the moment, to be honest — life is pretty damn good — so much so that finding time to write frequently escapes me). And yet, and yet. Even with all these wonderful blessings, good friends, good food and good drink by the ocean — what more could one ask for? — I remained subtlety aware of the dread anniversary passing by. I may thumb my nose at death, but he always grins his toothy grin and waves in return (it’s impossible to insult a patient adversary who always wins in the end).

Some might say it’s unhealthy to dwell on this date and its terrible significance; to them I say rubbish. Again — I repeat myself — I would cherish every memory of you, even those dark days that came at the end your life, your misery, your pain and your suffering that in very real ways became those of the ones who loved you (and love you still — at least for my part).

For memories are all that are left of you in this world. And were I to (gladly) live a thousand years, Mom, I could never forget you. And as with Dad, I’ll never quite be finished saying goodbye. I will always be in this moment.

And Yet I Cannot Forget, Dad

Windswept Graveyard HDR: St. James' Church, Thornes. Copyright Kevin Wakelam
Windswept Graveyard HDR: St. James’ Church, Thornes. Copyright Kevin Wakelam

Not sure what I can say that I haven’t said before, Dad. Not sure what I can say about your death that I won’t say on the next anniversary, and the next, and the next, ad infinitum. …

Nevertheless, as is years past I feel the need to mark this grim date here, simply for my own edification. Sages of grief tell us that we should dwell not on the bad aspects of death but on the good aspects of life. I would not disagree, and yet some dark part of me can’t or won’t let get of those last days, those last moments of your life. Good or bad, they are the last memories I have of you and I don’t want them to fade, grim as they might be.

Even as time and entropy causes these memories to fade — damn them both — I would cling to them, the good and the bad, the lovely and the ugly, for they are all that I have left of you.

As before, it’s difficult to accept that so much time has passed — four years, to be precise. Even half a world away, living in a foreign culture, with the added distractions of moving into a new apartment and beginning an organized study of a foreign language, December 16 looms large in my consciousness. A day that lives on in personal infamy, along with its sister, January 19.

A dead laptop can keep me from writing about until a week after the fact — yet another distraction — but I cannot forget. I would not, even if I could.

I think being here does make it somewhat easier to deal with, though. They celebrate Christmas here, too, but like the Japanese, it’s merely a secular holiday for them: an excuse to sell things people don’t need; an excuse to buy them; an excuse to listen to awful music; an excuse to celebrate and party — not that Thais need an excuse for that, which is one of the reasons I love them.

So even with the reminders it doesn’t feel like this dread season, but then I think that has more to do with my physical environment than anything else. When its 90 degrees outside — that’d be Fahrenheit, or 32 Celsius — the sun is shining and I can see subtropical plants and flowers outside, when a gecko skitters across my wall chasing after a bug that has wandered in through the open window — well, it’s just doesn’t feel like the Christmas I know and loathe.

For this, Dad, I give thanks. And yet, and yet. Part of me still resides this time of year in a small rural hospital, watching over your last laboring moments of life. Part of me still resides on a frost laden, wind bitten graveyard, next to your casket poised over its hole in the ground, all your grimly playful allusions to “daisy-root sniffing” over the course of my life coming back to me.

And part of me still seethes with anger at how your memory was desecrated and betrayed by those whose petty concerns outweighed your final wishes. Those whom you gave life to and loved. And part of me weeps that I don’t think I’ll ever be man enough to forgive and forget, as you would want me to do.

All that talk in those last months about burying hatchets. Even now I’m astonished about how you knew, or at least suspected in your aged wisdom, what was to come. I’m sorry I couldn’t prevent it, that I didn’t do more than I did to try.

There’s nothing more to say, Dad, except that I love you still, and even though you are gone you are not forgotten. That even now rarely a day goes by that I don’t think of you and Mom, at least fleetingly, in passing, for one reason or another. And that even now I would trade almost anything — years of my own life, even — if I could only have a few precious hours to speak with you again.

Until entropy catches up with me as well — the cancer or the heart disease lurking in my genes, or simply pneumonia — whatever it might be, until then I shall not forget, and I will forever be saying goodbye.

A note on the image: This image isn’t mine; I found it via a Google image search for “windswept graveyard.” The graveyard where my parents are buried unfortunately isn’t quite so picaresque. Anyway, the original by one Kevin Wakelam can be found here. 

Picking the Faded Blue

On this dread anniversary — so close on the heels of the other one — one of my favorite poems from Robert Frost, A Late Walk:

When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.

And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.

Time will not heal this wound, Mom, no matter how much time passes between then and now. I won’t let it.

a grim, yet fitting, reminder