Remembering Two Brilliant Siblings and Fifty Years

Good morning from the Acre,

It has been a productive and eventful week, though not always in the way I had planned or expected. We have finished the third week of classes and things are not (nor expected to) slow(ing) down. Students are beginning to settle down and focus a bit better than their initial week’s attentiveness also. This is all par for the course. On the personal front, there is some more work being done on the house and that has been planned for a while, but both managing the pieces and deciding how to proceed always take more time than I ever expect. That is a good lesson for me, however; a reminder that we seldom have control over external factors, and it is best to roll with the proverbial punches. That is the second part of the personal story for the week. This past Tuesday I went to the upper yard to take care of an issue that was a consequence of winter (at the moment, we have no snow). Coming down through the yard to the far end of the wrap-around porch, I found out a bit too late that things were both more slippery and much muddier than I suspected. By the time I realized what was there my feet were above my head and I body slammed myself into the soggy, muddy, cold, but nonetheless, still hard ground. After the obligatory lying in the mud that covered half of me, while I did a mental inventory of what hurt, I determined that except for some embarrassment and what would become aches and pains, I got up and trudged into the house. Fortunately a couple of people were here and I walked straight to the washing machine and threw everything in. A shower and nightshirt later, I was back at it. A bit sore, but doing okay. The remainder of the day was uneventful, but about 5 hours later I realized I was dealing with the bathroom much more frequently than usual (sorry if that creates images you would prefer not to have.). My modified digestive system, which, of course, allows more space in my abdomen than I often remember, seems to have shifted from the fall. Much like a kinked garden hose, it seems my intestine twisted created a blockage. I can assure you, such things are unpleasant. Suffice it to say, it was an intensely painful and excruciatingly uncomfortable next 8 or so hours. I was wiped out enough that I actually took a sick day and stayed in bed all day Wednesday. I slept, got up and drank more fluids, continued by restroom trips and slept more. I did get some soft poached eggs in Wednesday night and Thursday was pretty soft food also. It is now about five days later, and I am still gimping around with a pretty sensitive stomach. All in all, however, we avoided a worse fate, and I am back at the normal daily routine.

Today I awoke thinking about the two siblings with whom I grew up. I note them this way because there are more half-siblings out there, but that is an entirely different storyline, complicated, painful, and rather overwhelming if I really think about it. So most of the time, I choose not to. My older brother, who was about 5 years older than I was an unbelievably talented person. When I was small, I wanted to be just like him. He was mechanical, precise, methodical, patient when you would least expect it, and driven to succeed in ways I could only dream of. He was good at math and science, a phenomenal musician, and would excel at anything he put his mind to doing. I remember as the younger brother admiring most everything he was capable of doing. He was the most amazing model car builder I have ever met. He would analyze every piece, considering how to paint them in advance, how to sand the pieces of any excess plastic so they fit perfectly, and how we had the patience to wait after getting one task done and letting it set before beginning another. He would often build two or three at a time so he could be working on another model as the other was in process and needed to set up. I remember when he worked on waxing our toboggan before we would take it out for the winter. He used Johnson’s Paste Wax and a cloth before he would use the electric drill with a buffer pad on the disc. That toboggan glistened and it was faster than anything on the hill. No matter what he did, he would do it above and beyond what anyone could imagine. The more amazing thing was the rather matter-of-fact demeanor he had as he went about all of these things. He did not seem to believe anything was that extraordinary. As a small boy, I watched with captive interest when he spend time in our basement playing with his Lionel and American Flyer trains. He had a gargantuan train board that was a village with trestles, roads, building, mountains and most anything you could imagine and he would have the trains running in both directions. I could sit and watch him for hours, always hoping he would let me run the controls for even a few minutes. Sometimes, he allowed his pesty little brother to play and I would be the perpetual over the moon for that evening.

The one thing we did do together from time to time was our music. He was a much more famous trombone player than I would ever be as a trumpet/cornet player, eventually inducted with the other members of his band into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet, by the time I was in sixth grade, I was the first trumpet, first chair in a city-wide orchestra in a town of 100,000. I was inspired by my high school brother to try to be as amazing as he was and he both encouraged and supported my hard work. As we spent time in high school band together, it was the one time I began to feel I could make him proud of that little brother. In the time after he left for college, got married, became a father, and eventually an electrician, there were many twists and turns, but he was a profoundly passionate person about anything he did. He would eventually follow our father’s footsteps and work toward becoming an electrician. Then one January afternoon, shortly after lunch, he fell off a ladder at work and would suffer a traumatic brain injury from a fall that did not seem so incredibly terrible. Unfortunately, he hit his head on a sharp corner of something. He would live for an additional five weeks and never come out of the coma. He passed only a few months after his 26th birthday. It was 42 years ago on the day I began this blog. As I consider him how, he graduated from high school 50 years ago this coming June. He was a brilliant student in math and sciences and an astonishing musician, something that gave him great joy. Yet, he was also a father of three young children and the husband to a woman who was as talented as he was. I am blessed to still have his children and his wife in my life as I write this. So much has happened in all of our lives since then, but something remain . . . for me that constant is the admiration I have for the incredibly talented and passionate older brother.

I have noted my sister at other times (and she was, contrary to him, a biological sister). She was fourteen months younger than I, but probably closer to my brother than to me (and I believe the same could be said for him.). I think she too, as noted in an earlier blog, was intelligent beyond words or measure, but she struggled mightily with how to manage that ability. She too was musical. She had a very lovely voice, an alto, and she was a talented piano player. She could sit down and with a bit of practice play most anything her teacher gave her to play. As I think back, I am not sure what she really enjoyed about school in terms of academic interest. She could do most anything, but she needed to be convinced by herself that it was worth her effort, and that was regardless the subject. When we were in elementary school she was in hot water at least one or twice a year when grades would arrive because there was something she had not done. This was both to her consternation and to the exponentially higher level of my parents. In fact, twice rather than to deal with our mother’s wrath for poor grades, she ran away. That raised a different issue about the two of us, who were siblings. She always had an deep-seated need to find our biological parents, something I really never experienced. That issue would affect her for the remainder of her life in various ways. The other thing that I believe vexed my sister was her sexuality. She came out to her immediate family by the end of the 1970s, which was long before this was considered a typical process in anywhere. As a person who had twice been awarded the Outstanding Soldier of her base, being a lesbian in the service was not something acceptable. Her way of managing that dilemma was to leave active service. The consequence of that decision had more far-reaching effect that I believe she had ever anticipated. It was not something we understood either.

What I know now was my sister was bipolar (I also understood this while she was alive) and this would eventually cause her to be placed on SSD. I helped her at that point. However, I believe both the issue of sexuality and mental health were something she had faced even in her middle school and high school years, but at that point our society was neither prepared or willing to be able to help anyone facing such dilemmas. Those issues kept her from reaching her potential because she was consumed fighting battles to merely exist and try to be herself. She was a phenomenal artist as well as a creative spirit that went beyond what most could comprehend. In spite of her struggles at 39 she made the decision to become a mother. While I did not know this was part of her thinking or conversations, I remember the phone call and conversation when she called me that April morning in 1995, telling me I was to become an uncle. Kris had an incredibly loving heart that merely wanted to love and be loved. Most of her life she battled this need because of her choice in whom she was attracted to, but I think more profoundly, if affected her ability to feel loved, particularly by her own family. This is not a unique things for those who identify as LGBTQA, but identifying as outside the heterosexual norm as early as the 1970s was even more significant. What I know as she continued her life, her becoming a mother was the thing she was most proud of. I think she wanted for her daughter the possibilities she never was given the change to experience: things as simple as love, acceptance, the ability to become whomever you felt compelled to be, and a child who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her mother loved her. All things she had lacked growing up.

The thing that also made Kris’s life more difficult was she seldom took the easy path to accomplish anything. I have noted from time to time that she did not do the different drummer path, but created her own band path. I think she would actually be proud of that characterization. Her rebellion against any force that tried to corral her would characterize the rest of her life. Unfortunately, one of those habits, the addiction to nicotine, would become her undoing. When she passed away at the age of 51, she had smoked two-packs plus of cigarettes for years. An autopsy revealed she had already suffered a previous heart attack. In addition, she had chronic COPD and severe artherial sclerosis. All of those factors would lead to her being found dead on an early April morning. She was a beautiful woman who had a perceptive ability to empathize beyond any level most could understand. She was intelligent, reflective and capable also beyond measure. She was artistic and a strong writer. I wish she could have realized all her gifts and how she had so many more gifts that most ever knew.

In the case of both the siblings I was fortunate enough to call my brother and sister, they were lost before their time. There are times I try to understand why I am the one still here. There are times I feel guilty for the way I have been blessed to be able to live my life and have opportunities beyond anything I have ever earned. I have often said, and believe with most every fiber of my being, they were the more talented of the three of us. I was merely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Before you think I am fishing for something, I am not. I do not believe I am incapable. I do not believe that I have not worked hard. What I do believe is I wish they had an opportunity to live longer than they did. I wonder what they would think. I wonder what it would be like for us to be in our 60s and reminisce about a life that had made it through six decades? I wonder what we would like about our lives and how we would relate to each other at this point. Would I be the sort of outsider of the three? I think I was always the sort of anomaly, but how would that all work out? What I know on this week of a passing anniversary is that I miss them both. It is a bit lonely at times. I know that the relationships I still have with the children of my siblings (some closer than others) is an important part of my life even though I am still away and alone. It remembers me that there is something more to my life and that I did have two wonderfully talented and brilliant siblings.

After all I wonder how it all works from time to time and I realize I have no answers. As I worked on this blog posting I listened to the music of the phenomenal and troubled artist, Whitney Houston. She was such a talented vocalist. She reminded me of both Bob and Kris, and I leave this video of hers for you to ponder. It is not the most known of her incredible repertoire, but it seems appropriate as a sort of inclusio.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Martin (the other sibling)

Letting Go

karen brockhoff

Hello from Menomonie and more specifically from Comforts of Home,

I began my morning developing school work for next semester at Caribou Coffee. It was productive on a number of fronts. The remainder of the day has been a roller coaster of decisions and trying to understand what someone who has entrusted me with her life would decide if she were me. The two seizures experienced this past week have taken a substantive toll on a body that is simply wearing out. Lydia has a terrible and deep cough, but no strength to make it productive. When speaking with her doctor today, her personal physician of 20 years and perhaps one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, he said simply, it is time to let her go. He told me that he was discontinuing all medication except her seizure prescription and something to keep her comfortable. We talked about what she had been through and how she would be so sad to see where is currently is in her fight for a quality of life. I know that it is time to let her go and I have known this day would come, but the cliché that it does not make it any easier is more than a simple adage. It is a truism. I noted in a previous blog it is about fearing the unknown.

I have often mentioned that I was not as actively involved in my father’s passing as I wished I had been (post facto). I felt this was my way to make up for that. I know that my move to Pennsylvania made that involvement more laborious, but I promised her I would (and could) care for her. It is not surprising that I feel I could always have done better at times. I wish I could have gotten back here more often. I wish the phone calls where I was reminded that “I lived in that damn Pennsylvania.” could have continued for a longer period of time. I know all too well the feelings of would or should are both common and fruitless. The past is exactly that and we can anticipate the future, but all we actually have is the now. That is why now I choose to be sitting in her room by her side. I will not leave her alone. She has been sleeping most of the day and her breathing is shallow, but she is still cognizant of what is happening around her. Earlier as I held her hand, she would not let go and her grip is still incredibly strong. She is also more than capable of giving you a look with her brilliant blue eyes that can let you know if she approves or disapproves. At this point, she is still sleeping in her bed rather peacefully. As someone who very seldom missed a meal here at COH, when we asked her at lunch if she wanted to eat, she told us quite emphatically, “NO!” I am sitting here and I have been working on school work and I have music from Pandora (a station of Johann Sebastian Bach) playing so she has a chance to hear something comforting. I am not sure what she actually hears and comprehends at this point, but I want to make her comfortable.

I wish I knew what was going on in her head and what she knows or does not know. Today the phrase, a phrase I know, “via dolorosa” was once again shared with me. For those who are unsure what this phrase means “way of agony, sufferings, or sorrows” and is the term used for the street on which Jesus supposedly carried his cross on the way to his crucifixion. Regardless the translation, it is part of the passion of the Christ and it is an apropos phrase as I watch this amazing woman, a brilliantly-opinionated, terrifically-stubborn, and incredibly kind-hearted person fade into the next world. I wonder if she, in her state, is able to connect with others she has loved in the past. This afternoon my former pastor and friend came to see her and he spoke the words and prayers for a small service called [the] Commendation for the Dying. It was important for  me, and it was interesting as he is fluent in German also, he did the scripture reading from Romans in German. It was wonderful to listen to it. It was also nice that Carissa and Leighann were both here for it and I think it was important to them. Lydia has had a string of visitors today both caregivers who are currently on staff, but perhaps off for the weekend, as well as former caregivers who no longer work here, but had some part in her care over the past three and a half years. What continues to amaze me about her is the significant impact she has had on so many people even in her time here, even somewhat tucked away in these past three plus years. I am certainly sure that when I first met her 10 years ago, there was not the slightest inkling that I would be the person sitting with her now.

She actually woke up for a bit and I sat on the side of her bed and held her hand. She patted my face and smiled. I told her that I loved her and I was grateful for everything she has done and she smiled. I told her it was time for her to go and see George and her parents and she answered, “yes.” She was smiling and I was crying. It was the clearest I have seen her eyes look in the two and a half days I have been home. I was not there when my father passed away, but I was there when my mother and my brother passed. I do not remember crying this much for them. Perhaps it is because I am older and life seems both more significant and fragile than it did at those points in my life. Perhaps it is because I am realizing, as I often do during the holidays, that when your family is no longer alive it is a very lonely feeling. I do realize that I have extended family and I am so grateful for them. I also realize how wonderful so many people have been to me. I am so blessed. I think sometimes we take so much for granted, and I again, I know that sounds a bit cliché also, but we are always forced to consider our mortality when we watch another lose his or hers, and I guess it is even more significant when those lost have such import into our lives. I had no idea as I mentioned earlier that I would gain another parent, one to take the place of the more than one set I have already lost. If I consider my biological parents, my adopted parents, and the surrogate parents that I have had in my life, that is quite the number of people. In some ways Lydia demonstrated a sense of love and care for me that, up to that point, I had never experienced in my life. It is still different than any other person from whom I have been gifted to receive their love. While many were frightened of her, I was reminded at dinner this evening, that I was able to accomplish things with her no one ever had. I still think my claim to fame might be getting her to ride on the Harley. I remember the first couple days I lived in the carriage house and I had taken garbage out to the front curb. I was walking back up the driveway and my garage door was closing (and I did not have the remote). As I almost dove under the door to get in, I walked into the house and the phone was ringing. It was Lydia letting me know that I had left my garage door open.  I told her I knew because I was walking back to the garage from the street. Then it dawned on me that she had a garage door opener for my door. I asked her if I could have it and she empathetically and succinctly told me no. . . . It is now about 7:45 a.m. CST on Sunday and I am back at COH. I finally went home about 12:30 earlier this morning and I did sleep. Lydia is sleeping also and it sounds like she had a peaceful night after I left. It was drizzling and freezing on the way home last night and it is dreary again this morning, but it was not too slippery. As I came in the room, I held her hand a spoke her name and she opened her eyes and acknowledged me with a bit of a sound. As I held her hand a bit ago, even today as she faded in other ways her grip is still amazingly strong. It took 3 or 4 minutes to pry my fingers from her grip. I do wonder if today will be the day. I know that some of her former colleagues are going to stop by today. Some of them have not seen her for sometime and I am afraid they will be a bit shocked, but she does look and seem peaceful. The one exception is a slight furrowing of her forehead, but otherwise she does not see to be fighting . . . and yet I wonder if she holds on to our hands so fiercely because she is still fighting before she finally decides to let go. I know from minute to minute I struggle and the tears come. All I want for her now is to have no pain and for her to pass peacefully. The stories I can tell, and have told, about Lydia are as numerous as the fingers and toes of all who might read this post. Even in the last moments she has a presence that few can match. Yesterday, in spite of sleeping and being pretty sleepy, a couple of times when they tried to give her some water to drink, she did not want it and batted it away. We ended up needing to change her sheets and comforter both times. In fact, the workers have told me they have never seen someone both fade so quickly and yet be so strong. She will be stubborn to the last, I am sure of it. Yet as I watch her from the chair next to her bed as I type this, her breathing continues to grow more shallow. I know that there is so much she has accomplished. I have pondered how she had to let go of so much in her life and she had to start over, but even then she had to let go from time to time.

As an Austrian in the Sudetenland, she and other Austrians or Germans were subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of the Czech government. Because of those decrees against those considered to be Nazi sympathizers, an estimated 700,000 and 800,000 Germans were affected by expulsions between May and August 1945. If they were German or Hungarian, they were stripped of their citizenships. The expulsions were encouraged by the Czechoslovak politicians and were generally carried out by the order of local authorities, mostly by groups of armed volunteers. However, in some cases it was initiated or pursued by assistance of the regular army. Ethnic Germans were subjected to massacres at that point. It was because of this impending expulsion and other inhumane treatment that Lydia and many others walked from the Sudeten area to Vienna. That is over 400 KM and Lydia and many others walked that path and it would not be like walking through North Dakota. She had to let go of her family. Then she eventually moved to London and let go of her country. In the early 1950s she moved to the United States as a newlywed and had to let go and start over again. When  George and Lydia came to the United States, they moved to the Chicago area and began their lives in a new country in a very different situation than they had been in. Between jobs and college degrees, they created an amazing life here. Eventually Lydia once again had to let go of a life she knew and she moved to Wisconsin to begin a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She had to both hold on to Chicago and her life there, but let go to move to Wisconsin. She was an independent person and knew how to manage pretty much every aspect of her life. She was both brilliant and determined.

As I sit with her today, she is sleeping most of the time. Former colleagues and friends have stopped by today. She did have her eyes open at moments, but I am glad she is sleeping and peaceful. A short while ago she actually opened her eyes and almost sat up and looked around. The staff has been wonderful with her and their care for me has been so kind also. A bit ago she opened her eyes again and I was holding her hand. I rubbed her forehead and told her I loved her. She smiled and struggled a bit to speak, but told me she loved me also. She then closed her eyes and then about a minute later she opened her eyes and looked at me and said, “Michael.” Then she closed her eyes again. I was pretty much a weeping mess after that. Now she is sleeping again. I want her to let go and I have told her it is okay, but I am not sure she has decided to do so. It is a sad thing to be afraid. Still, when she has held a finger or two of mine in her hand, the strength she still has in her grip makes me look like a weakling. It will take me a few minutes to pry my fingers out of her grip. I have been speaking with the staff and because they are much more adept at the signs than I am, they have helped me see things. I have been here since 7:30 this morning and it is now 4:30, so I think I might take a break, but I am so afraid I might leave and she will be alone when she passes. I do not want that for her.  . . .

I had someone come sit in the room while I ran to Caribou and Subway. I got coffee and goodies for the staff working and I got a sandwich for myself. I do not think Lydia has much fight left in her. She is sleeping most of the time, only opening her eyes if you ask something. I think I want to get this blog posted. I am going to try to catch a quick nap in the chair here in her room. I am hoping that she will perhaps be able to let go and nap in a more significant way. Thank you to everyone who has texted, called, visited, or prayed at this time. I am grateful. I am blessed in so many ways. I am humbled to be here to take care of this wonderful woman. She has cared for me and loved me. I am merely giving back for what she has given me. . . . an addendum: it is after 11:00 central time and I am exhausted. I think I am going to try to sleep for a while. A colleague noted she might need to be alone to pass. I will kiss her goodnight and pray “come Lord Jesus, and come tonight.”

Thanks for reading.

Michael