Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Follow the yellow lines

Jack in his younger days
"Well, you know I can't live here by myself. I'm moving in with you." I guess he was serious. Within a couple days we drove down to his place pulling an enclosed trailer behind the truck. That was the beginning of a whole new reality.

Gary's dad, Jack, boldly made that proclamation back in August. We were rather shocked to find his house in such disrepair, piles of accumulated trash, (most of which were empty ice cream containers), everywhere. Neglected bills hid under the rubble. His neighbors across the street said his decline from ambitious living to hesitant toddling was rapid. It was obvious the time was right to make the move. We packed what we could fit in the trailer and headed back west, leaving for another day the huge task of cleaning out a house and garage filled to overflowing from thirty plus years of accumulated auction finds.

Addy (2) and Great PopPop (92) chat

Great PopPop, as Addyson called him, had an instant impact on our daily lives. At 92, he seemed a bit invigorated by the move. Even as we unloaded the trailer, Seth looked up to see Grandpa barrelling down the hill on his bicycle, both legs spread outward, resembling an ancient PeeWee Herman.Wheeeee! Not too long after his motorcycle was rolled off the truck, I looked out the kitchen window to see him cruising across the yard on his two-wheeled chariot. Oh, boy. This was gonna be a brave new world--for all of us.

Sept 2017 dove hunt
Gary is such a good son. He included his father in garage activities, even if it meant he simply acquired a perch to watch, talk, and sometimes get in the way. When dove season hit, Dad was given the best spot in the field, Gary sitting by his side to ensure that an increasingly confused old man would pull the trigger only when appropriate. (Incidentally, Dad dropped three of those darting fowl to the ground, quite proud that he still had it.) Gary installed a heater in the little out building and bought a special chair with a gun rest so his father could "hunt" deer when that season rolled around. Together, they watched hours of cars shows in the evening at an almost unbearable volume. Dad seemed content and relaxed because his needs--and then some--were taken care of with such love.

Addy and Great PopPop
Then one day we came home. Grandpa and his beat-up, sticker-laden PT Cruiser were gone. It had only been a week since the move. Could he have changed his mind and headed east to his old home? Five hours later and after getting the state police involved, we chased down the blinking dot on the computer screen, thankful that Gary's sister had put tracking on Dad's old flip phone. After driving hundreds of miles up and down I-81, he was finally pulled over. Smiling and clueless, he got out of his car to greet us and the officers. A trip to the Bedford Walmart to get gas for his motorcycle ended in an all-day drive. "But I was just following the yellow lines home," he reasoned. We hid his keys (and ours) from then on.

Wanting to give him an outlet for his decreasing mobility and balance, we got Dad a Kubota RTV to drive around the farm. Along with that, we ordered five extra keys. Grandpa got into the habit of slipping the keys into a pocket or selecting a hiding spot. He
Jack's Kubota
was proud and protective of his new go-anywhere vehicle (which we hoped would NOT include public roads and a return trip to Walmart). One problem though; he kept forgetting what he did with his keys. Our stash of keys became golden.

In his younger years, Jack used to be--well, opinionated. Conspiracy theories, doctor ineptness, and politician antics were topics to avoid when he was around. But now, as the growing dementia smoothed out the jagged edges of criticism, his demeanor became kinder and gentler, gracious and thankful. And his humor? Oh, how he liked to laugh!

Ever see the Dominoes commercial where the guy pulls into his icy driveway, a tree falls onto his car, and then, pizza in hand, he goes topsy-turvey into the air, the pizza splattering across the snow? Dad belly laughed each and every time the commercial came on. We laughed at him laughing, grateful that his dwindling memory made even the most repetitive things funny and new.

Or how about the oft-played Alka-Seltzer Plus commercial? This one shows a woman driving along, miserable with a terrible cold. The camera pans out to show she had left her bag of groceries on the roof of her car. Of course, the bag tumbles onto the road, contents sprawling everywhere. One day, Grandpa's commentary to his care-taker and companion was this: "That woman is so stupid! She does that several times a day!" How could we not laugh at that?

Circa '44. Jack flew, but not at Pearl Harbor
Dad could tell some stories as well, some of which got more and more intriguing the further along he got in his illness. After watching a documentary with Gary, Dad somehow inserted himself into the action at Pearl Harbor. With each telling, the story became more fully developed. Now mind you, he was 16 years old and in high school at the time of the attack. But regardless, the last edition was just about two weeks ago when he reported that after swooping down from 30,000 feet in his fighter jet, he pulled along side a Japanese Zero. Wingtip to wingtip, he described the terror on the enemy's face, tempted to pull the handgun from his holster to end the other's life. Deciding to let him live, he demonstrated how he repeatedly stroked across the extended pointer finger of one hand as if to say, "Shame on you!!!" That was a new ending. We tried hard to repress our giggles.

Of course, there were a million other entertaining stories, proclamations that he owned our house and all the motorcycles, nighttime forages for food, and the rapid decline in reasoning. It was hard to be patient and loving at times, frustrated with this extra adult in the house who required such help and understanding. Every aspect of our lives revolved around him, making change after change as required. I would be a liar to say it was easy.

Hunting at age 85
And then he entered the pain cave. We had no choice but to follow him into that dark and dank cavern. At times it seemed deep and bottomless. Advancing cancer ferociously attacked his spine and lungs. A monster blood clot blocked blood flow into his legs. He rapidly transitioned from ambulation, to wheelchair, to confined to the bed. Medication levels rose quickly to track the crescendoing pain. He writhed and grimaced and called out as we scrambled to get him relief. 39 discs of the Andy Griffith shows were meant as a distraction in his more lucid moments. We hired in overnight help so we could sleep a few hours, before weaving together a tapestry of student nurses and others to help when they could. But even in the midst of the chaos, Grandpa was grateful, kind, sweet, and gentle. Without exception, everyone said so. It was so true.

1993 road trip, Jack and Gary
Medically, there were desperate times. But in those last days, Grandpa rested comfortably, unaware his body was growing weary and worn. Loud, rhythmic breathing became the constant white noise in our home. But something changed yesterday. His breathing, once rapid but steady and deep, began to slow. I sat by his bed, his fevered hand in mine. From thirty-two breaths a minute to ten, and then five. The time was near. Without strain, his previously furrowed brow relaxed, he drew in a breath, closed his mouth as if to smile, and gently exhaled. This man who was a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, and a great-great grandfather had stepped across heaven's threshold into the presence of the Father.

Well done, good and faithful servant. You followed the yellow lines home to the streets of gold.

Jack Harold Trittipoe  June 22. 1925 to April 24, 2018

Saturday, March 17, 2018

How's it going?

"Challenge accepted," I typed without thinking. Oops. Now I was morally bound to follow through.

What had I done? Early this morning, before the day's preparations of the Lady Flames Basketball team for their first game in the NCAA Division 1 tourney, I hastily jotted a Facebook note to Jenna, a friend and talented writer celebrating another birthday. I typed, "Sure hoping your day is special in many ways. Write a blog post!"

Wouldn't you know it? She did, and then promptly wrote back. "Your turn. Enjoy the first round of the tournament!" including one of those winking smiley faces for added pressure. Hence, I am sitting in the hotel lobby at 10:30 pm pecking away on the keyboard.

But there's a problem. What moves me to write is usually a significant event; a race, adventure, or major life occurrence. Tonight it's hard to pinpoint what is appropriate e-scribble subject matter. So I'll begin, but I have no earthly idea where (or when or how) this will end.

This is my first trip with a team where I am not the coach. I serve as the chaplain for this college
basketball team, and that role is quite different from what I'm used to. Great, but different. My goal is to challenge and motivate, be faithful to the Truth, and live life along side these women. Sometimes it feels "right," like when you get in a grove on the court and everything works. But there are those other moments that make you feel more like parsley on a plate; not good for much except adornment. Don't get me wrong. I am thrilled and privileged to be here. It's just hard to remember that I am only called to be obedient in serving; it's God's job to make change.

Then there is the situation at home. Gary's dad came to live with us last August. It's been hard. Really hard. And now he's dying. Yes, we are all technically dying, but he is officially in hospice in our home and declining quickly. He requires 24/7 care with someone sitting close by at all times. His ability to process is almost non-existent. He doesn't sleep through the night, sometimes getting up and banging around four or more times a night. In the last few days, a walker and wheel chair have been added to our houseful of eldercare "stuff."  Tomorrow night will mark the first time we hire in help from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.. Life is increasingly more difficult for Grandpa. Life is logistically more complicated and exhausting for us.
And what about running? Long jaunts along mountain trails have always been my decompression strategy when the noose tightens to uncomfortable levels. But I am still not able to run. I am in my fifth month since I last raced my 20th Mountain Masochist 50 Mile race. The injury I thought would just go away has persisted. In December, I made a decision to hit Reset, giving myself permission to initiate a temporary moratorium on training after racing the long stuff for nearly 25 years. I can now walk and hike fast, but the running motion is not well-tolerated. I've seen a variety of doctors, each with a different opinion. So I continue to build strength and flexibility for those muscle groups most likely contributing to my ills.

So there you have it. Whah. Whah.Whah. I sound like a whiney-piney little girl; discontented and ego-centric. I don't want to be that way. As much as chronic complainers annoy me, I feel like I am dangerously close to being relegated to that category myself. But here is the dilemma: How do I answer the ubiquitous question: "How's it going?" Those words flow easily from the lips of strangers on the street. Casual acquaintances voice the question as they pass by in the hallways at work. And even our best friends ask absentmindedly, often failing to push the pause button on the conversation to allow a thoughtful response.

Have to be honest. I loathe that question nowadays because I absolutely have no idea how to answer it. If I unload all my present challenges on that stranger, they are certain to run. The acquaintances will spread the word throughout the office to keep a safe distance, and the close friends will simply quit asking.

What to do? Do I paste on a smile and lie through my teeth? "Oh, I'm GREAT!" sounding like good 'ol Tony the Tiger in the Frosted Flakes commercials of old? Or do I go to the other extreme and tell the inquisitor every detail of Grandpa's latest craziness accompanied with a complete anatomical explanation of my injury? Or perhaps there is a middle ground. Sounding rather pious, I could give a little head nod, draw in a calculated breath, and with a smidgen of piousness, offer the t-shirt worthy quip, "Well, life is hard but God is good."

Before I go further, let me say that I have many things for which to be thankful. My granddaughter is an absolute joy. My love for her father and his brother and girlfriend huge. My husband is a remarkable man and my forever guy. Our church is family and a source of encouragement. Ministry on campus is growing at a furious pace. So why is it so hard to answer such a simple question?

I suspect my problem is that the difficult, hard things tend to crowd out the pleasant. It's not an uncommon phenomena. I think back to the middle of some tough races. I am suffering big time with more miles ahead than behind. My stomach churns, my legs are mush, and tears of self-pity stain my cheeks. My weak brain is kidnapped and chained to the misery of the moment. If I allow this to continue, my demise is certain at the next aid station.

Aerial photo of corn maze
Although the pain and suffering is real, to focus on it in a negative sense is suicide. In those darkest times, my only chance of survival is to actually embrace the pain for what it is; an opportunity to explore new limits, the impetus to achieve what seemed so improbable moments prior, and the chance to rise above the fray to see the whole experience from a drone's vantage point. It is a choice to think this way, but takes maturity and discipline.

So, you ask, "How's it going?"

Be patient with me. I'm still working on my answer, but think I'm closer now than I was. (BUT, if you could buy me a little more time before asking me THE question, I sure would appreciate it!)

Follow the yellow lines

Jack in his younger days "Well, you know I can't live here by myself. I'm moving in with you." I guess he was serious....