Becoming Norman . . . Pleased or Chagrined?

Hello on the weekend,

It has been an emotional couple weeks, and if you have been reading the blog, you have some sense of why that is, but I think there is more. There are times, and their frequency seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, that I feel like I am simply not as capable as I once was. While that might seem like a normal aging process ~ even if a reasonable explanation ~ I do not like it . . . and more so, I do not have to like it. While the GI tract stuff is a normal part of my life, some of the aches and pains logical, I have been often respected for how well I remember things, and that is where I am struggling. If I do not write it down and then follow it rather explicitly, it seems I am not as apt to remember it. Last week, and regardless the number of classes, committees, or other things, I found myself wandering around the parking lot looking for my car, for more than a half hour. In fact, in the spirit of total transparency, I wandered around two parking lots, and I could not find my car. I eventually remembered I had parked in a third possibility, but that scared me more than I have words.

The concern of some kind of memory loss concerns me more than most might realize. My father, while my adopted father, is a relative. He was a first cousin to my paternal grandmother, so that genetic tree is pretty strong. My father, each of his brothers and the daughter of a brother have all have significant difficulties with either dementia or Alzheimer’s. The number of times I have forgotten where I have placed my keys, my glasses, my phone is a number that would need an exponent. I wonder when it is time to question and if there is a reasonable way to ask about taking a benchmark level memory test. The fact that I have hydration issues, which seem to have negative outcomes for most of my body, might also exacerbate brain health. I remember going home once to check in on my father, after receiving a concerning phone call from my sister. My father was livid that I had come “to spy” on him as he angrily told me at lunch one day. Knowing what I know now because of his experience, as well as the progression of Lydia’s dementia, I have a much clearer understanding of some of the early symptoms, the markers, that might provide some earlier detection. While I certainly do not need another health battle, if I am going to battle something else, I want to take it on headfirst and with everything possible tool in my arsenal managing it the best way I can.

One of my favorite movies, certainly in my top 5, is the Academy Award winning On Golden Pond. It is an incredibly touching story of a retired professor (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) who are spending the summer at their vacation home. They are visited by their daughter (Jane Fonda, who, of course, is the daughter of Henry). The struggle of grown adults managing their parents (as well as perhaps vice versa) and the portrayal of dementia before it was a common word as it is now is superbly done. Henry, as the cantankerous Norman Thayer Jr., is both heart-warming and frightening. I have often said to those who know me best here in Bloomsburg, that I want to be just like Norman when I get to that age. One of my former students actually refers to me as Norman because of this very movie. It is a term of endearment from her. There is hardly a time, and I have watched the movie multiple times, that I am not moved to tears as I watch it.

There are other ways I find myself becoming Norman. I seem to have less patience with absent-mindedness, or simple oblivion characterizing or plaguing some people. When something is forgotten once, I can generally find some graciousness. When it happens again and again, on a weekly (almost daily) basis, I find myself being less than charitable. That bothers me because I feel hypercritical and unfair. One of the things I have struggled with most of my life is boundaries. I know that does not make me unique, but I have a tendency to allow people the benefit of the doubt, and then I allow it again, and then again, and then  . . . you get the idea. Ultimately, I get frustrated. As I have pondered this characteristic, it seems that this time of the year is particularly when I find myself at my wit’s end. I do find some progress being made, even in my current dilemma. I made myself step back and ponder and do some analysis (and that meant working through six months of a checkbook, statements, and other items to make sure I was being fair). In addition, rather than merely hitting someone broadside, I have also stepped back and am working to manage the circumstance thoughtfully and in a way that demonstrates both appreciation for the progress made and help offered, but simultaneously to look at the reality of the situation. Of course, there are always things that seem to be tossed in to make the current state of affairs more contextually complex. Then again, I was once asked by a counselor if I ever did anything the easy way. I think my response, almost 30 years later, would be the same: probably not. There are undoubtedly times I still seem to learn slowly. What I do know is there is a genuinely caring and good heart involved in this situation (and that is on both sides). I also think there are also good intentions (again, on both sides). Part of this is merely seeing a larger picture, and when one has not really had to do that too often, knowing how to do that is not a simple or readily achievable outcome.

I am reminded of the young person who is left with Norman and Ethel for the summer. He is not sure what to do with them and they are not sure how they will manage him. Again, I see parallels. I often wonder what I would have done had I been a parent. I was petrified to do so, mostly because I am not sure I had good role models. I think some of that fear persists. I try to do what I think is best, but sometimes (often) it seems I either enable or I have no ability to allow for mistakes. I know there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle, but I struggle to find it. I think some of my concern about what I feel now is a predicament is because there is a history. There is also experience. Undeniably, that experience, be it over the years or the last months, demonstrates a consistency from both. Again, at the same time there is progress and I have to give credit for that. One of the things I am forced to come to terms with is that I created this dilemma because I allowed it. I cannot blame anyone else for that. Again, the rationale for allowing this goes back to where I usually find myself. Someone needs help and I offer said help. The problem is I do not know how to be consistent in pushing adherence to what I said needed to happen from the outset. The question is why am I willing to allow myself to step back time and time again from what I laid out. It is my inconsistency that creates the problem and I cannot blame the other for my mistake. The anger comes, I imagine, from my realizing that I again engendered the present dilemma. I also enkindled the complications. In the movie, there are ups and downs, and at the end, there is a mutual respect produced. I am praying for something similar. I am not sure it will happen immediately. In fact, if it happens immediately, I will once again find myself believing in miracles. One of the things that most frustrates me are things I find myself doing, particularly when I fall short. Over the last months, I have worked hard to be on time. When I was growing up, I had a father who believed if you were not 15 minutes early, you were late. I am not sure that I am there, but I do try to be a few minutes early whenever possible. That is not always easy when you are dealing with other people’s needs and their schedules, but again, discipline and planning will help. The second thing I am trying to be more intentional about is remembering that I do not live in a vacuum. What I do affects other people. Therefore, my choices do also. That is probably my biggest frustration at this point, be it students or in the house. If you say you are going to be somewhere at a certain time, then just do what you say. If your schedule changes, please let someone know. That is where I have been particularly pained by the actions of others as of late.

I have a ton to get done yet tonight, but it has been a pretty productive weekend. I am always amazed by what can happen when I am frustrated. The energy in that can be channeled into some very positive outcomes. My house is pretty spotless and I got some things cleaned and organized that have been on the back burner for a while. I think there is always a fine line between helping and enabling a person. Being the co-dependent person, and one who was much more so earlier, I still struggle to find that balance between helping and hindering. It is always complicated when there is a history. Again, it reminds me of the movie. In the movie, Jane Fonda, as Chelsea, struggles with the relationship she currently has with her aging father. What I found interesting in my research about the movie is that as real father and daughter they were estranged. This movie brought them together. She, in fact, produced the movie to allow for her father to act in it. As I research things, it is interesting to see how our history and the events that cloud that history affect so much more than we are aware of.

One of the other things I have been forced to consider is how people come into and move out of our lives. In the past, I worried when people moved out of my life. I think now I see the reason for that. I do believe we lose something in their moving on, but at the same time it allows for a refocus of sorts. Perhaps the most important thing for me is learning to let go. That has never been a strength, and what I have done in the past when doing so is to walk away and say little or nothing. That is also a problem because it is more like running away. Again, On Golden Pond comes to mind. In one particular poignant scene (and again a scene where some say this is where the two Fonda family members made amends) the dialog goes something like this:

Chelsea: I don’t want anything; it just seems you and I have been mad at each other for so long.

Norman: I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.

Chelsea: (with tears in her eyes) I want to be your friend.

Norman: This mean you would come around more often? It’d mean a lot to your mother (and you can tell he is struggling as he covers his own eyes)

Chelsea: I’ll come around more often.

Norman: Well . . .

I find this part of the movie particularly difficult because my mother and I never accomplished this sort of absolution in our relationship. I often tell students now when they say they are struggling with their parents, or note they are not speaking, that it is best to try to manage that separation. I have two or three of those situations to which I must attend even now. The question can often be what does one risk in reaching out. I think the more important point is to know how to let things go so that the separation is a reasonable one rather than merely running away. Sometimes those separations happen because people change. Sometimes they happen because locations change. I think one of the things I have been more likely to do is remain in touch. Perhaps that is why I am teased that I know everyone from everywhere. There is both a blessing and a curse to that, as it the case with most things in our lives.

By the end of the movie, the summer has passed and the Thayer’s get ready to leave Golden Pond. Sometimes we fail to comprehend how our lives are interwoven into the fabric of others. Sometimes, the fabric becomes tattered and worn, but that does not make it less valuable or important. Sometimes, we need to hold on to the things that remind us of who were are and from where we come. Other times it is reasonable to look for something new. As most things in life, there is no recipe, and much of what we do is by trial and error. Sometimes I am more like Norman that I perhaps expected to be. Sometimes, I wish I was even more like him. Here is some music from the movie. If you have not had an opportunity to see this amazing show, do yourself a favor. It is worth the time.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

 

Farewell my Friend

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Good Sunday morning,

It is very early and I am awake. I left town yesterday because of the yearly block party (I refuse to use it as a proper noun – pun intended). It was a wonderful day in Jim Thorpe and a beautiful day to be walking around. Early yesterday morning, I got a call from Stephanie informing me that Peter, the life-long friend whom I have noted as of late, had passed away earlier Saturday morning, ending his battle with ALS. It is a bitter-sweet thing to say I am both relieved that he no longer needs to suffer, but I am so profoundly at a loss because someone who has been my friend since the beginning of my life, and someone even younger (albeit only a year, almost exactly), has left this earth. As I noted a few posts ago, this is a very different feeling than the feeling I had with Lydia. While losing Lydia is still part of my daily thoughts, she was 90 and had lived an amazing life. Peter was 58 years old. At one point I might have considered that old. That is undoubtably not my reality now.

When I went to see Peter three weeks ago, he noted that he never really expected to grow old. That statement caught me off guard, but I noted that he probably did not expect to have to battle such a vicious and uncaring disease as ALS. I want to talk about the memories of this most amazing, yet profoundly human, friend of mine. Our mothers were best friends all of our lives and our families did most everything together. Peter, James, and John (Biblical sounding) were the three Goede boys and Robert, Michael, and Kris (I am the Michael, not trying to state the obvious) were the Martin children. Peter’s mother was our church organist and our two father’s, Jake and Harry, pretty much ran Riverside Lutheran Church when we were small. To walk into my house and see Marge, Peter’s mother, at the kitchen table having iced tea with my mother was as common as breathing. To see our fathers working on something at church was a common as listening to Pastor Anderson or Ofstedal, our two pastors from childhood through high school preach every Sunday. If it was the 4th of July, we were at McCook Lake and the Ike’s Club to celebrate with fireworks and picnics. When I was 17 years old, Peter saved my life when I almost drown in that lake. If he had not swum across that lake, I am am quite sure I would not be writing this post and he would be joining me rather than I being one of the many who has lost him.  His older brother, John, was instrumental in really creating a strong church youth group  and that youth group was a significant part of my growing up. I remember when the famous Beatles song, “Let it Be” was the theme of our homecoming growing up. It was that song and Pete’s singing of it that got his voice noticed and began a life-long gig with the garage band, The Establishment, who were eventual inductees into the Iowa Rock -n-Roll Hall of Fame, that would in someways identify Peter for the rest of his life. Whether it was their gigs or his grandmother meticulously braiding his almost waist-length hair; whether it was traveling to another high school homecoming dance or a weekend in Spencer, Iowa, where we spent hours listening to the latest 45 trying to figure out the lyrics to “Rocky Mountain Way”, his voice was in the process of becoming legendary. Growing up I walked beans on their farm; I spent moments driving around in our cars; hanging out wherever we might decide like the Runza Drive-in on Riverside Blvd. When I left for the Marine Corps after graduation, our actual time together was significantly less than our childhood years, but eventually, I was best man in his wedding and he was the same in mine. When I ended up in seminary, Whitney, their daughter was born and I sang at her baptism. He would sing at my ordination and he sang at my sister’s funeral. Our fathers passed away within two months of each other.

Even though our lives when through a myriad of changes, there was never the need to figure out who the other one was or who they had become. I remember going to Whitney’s high school graduation reception and what he told me that day was a bit shocking, but he was even then taking a sort of inventory of his life and what had happened. Peter was an unequalled when it came to working hard and not giving up on things. In the early days of he band he would buy their PA equipment, taking out loans in his own name to make sure they had what was needed and he and Flood Music became sort of business partners. He was one of the first to get into the hardware/software/networking area and he did very well. Even when it required changing companies and learning a new gig or thing, he was up to the challenge. Yet, he was a human and sometimes the habits we learn early never leave us. There were things he battled and as with many of us, he could be his own worst enemy. I understand this malady all too well. A couple of years ago, I sent him a letter. It was a letter that I had written as I was recovering from complications of yet another surgery and a letter than reflected much as I am now. As I battled yet another serious health crisis, I called and read him the letter before I even sent it. I cried that evening as I cry now. I am now more than grateful that I took the time to write to him and to Stephanie at that time. I am glad that I took the time to visit him three weeks ago. I am grateful for the conversations we had that day and the opportunity I had to speak with Stephanie a few weeks before that. We take so much for granted.

Later today, I will spend time watching a student be inducted into the national honor society. Quite a change from the beginning of their college tenure, but what it demonstrates is someone not taking anything for granted, but realizing it takes work and that no one owes us anything. That is such a difficult lesson. There is no promise of a long life; there is no promise of success, even with hard work. Each day is a gift and coming to terms with that is something that takes most of us a long time to realize, if we ever actually come to that realization. Each time I am shocked or jolted into this reality, there is little that can be said. It is yet another forced realization. To use the word “forced” demonstrates that we are so easily lulled into complacency or a sense of expectation. We have our plans (and heaven knows we need to plan), but we have little comprehension, nor do we want it, that the line between life and death is much more tenuous than we care to consider in any regular manner or given moment. I think some of our occupations require us to do so (medical or health care workers), but generally we make our long-term plans merely believing that those things will happen. I am quite sure that neither Peter nor I expected to incur some of the things that we have in the 40 years since high school. I do think he expected to have Stephanie in his life, and I am grateful to her for being the amazing person she is. I know the last time he and I spoke he talked about how important his children were and how proud he was of them. His daughter and son, while I do not know them as well as I might wish, are certainly incredible people. They are successful, but more importantly, they are also good people. What I know my friend is that as I think about our lives, I would not be the person I am without some of the things we shared and all the ways our lives were intertwined growing up. You have taught me what true friendship is. We remained friends during your entire life. When I told you three weeks ago that I loved you, I meant that from the bottom of my heart. In spite of your fragile condition, you were as gracious as you could be and we had a nice day together. We laughed and we cried. The tears streaming down my face now are tears of relief. They are tears of sadness and also tears of graciousness, for gratefulness, that we had the opportunity for some sense of closure. I promised I would come see you as soon as school was finished for the semester, but that was not to be. Instead, I am honored and humbled for the opportunity I have had to share together with you our lives, sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes at a distance, sometime with a passage of time, but regardless it was a friendship that abided change of time, distance, jobs, and anything else that might have happened.

I am not sure what the schedule will be this coming week, but I know that I am headed back to see you again, sooner than I imagined. This time to be there for your children and for Stephanie and to share with all the people who loved you. As I write this, ironically, I am listening to iTunes and “Dream On” came on. Your voice and your ability to be the show person you were will always amaze me. I hope you have a wonderful stage on which you can share. I know your parents and grandmother are there to welcome you. I am glad you are no longer suffering, but I will miss knowing that you are there in Eagan. I love you, Stephanie, and I love you my friend.

Bless you.

Thanks for reading.

Michael (Peter’s friend)

P.S. I have to add that I have now heard “Let it Be,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Free Bird”. Thanks for the messages, my friend.