Now Ashes (For Ilse)

Image

Ilse Morgan on her 82nd Birthday 5.28.12

My sister whispered, “It’s ok, if you want to go now.”

This is not the week we pictured.

We watched your color

change like a sunset, fade to final.

We each said our goodbyes.

You had changed your mind about ashes.

In Auschwitz, your relatives were reduced to ashes

and in the Lodge fire, your jewelry, irreplaceable heirlooms, now

you too to the flames gone by.

The mantle is like a memorial, I keep rearranging the pictures,

nothing feels right – too final –

they should be black and white, not color.

Tonight the sunset is aflame with color―

the sky slowly burning to ash.

Sometimes night feels so final…

I wonder how I can live in the now,

sifting through the past in pictures,

someone is always saying goodbye.

Absence is the ache of goodbye.

She was color-

ful, you can see it in all the pictures.

In the Danube, she wants her ashes.

No solace for now—

that will be the grand finale.

Obituaries are final.

I did not get to tell my father goodbye.

I know better how it works now―

the sudden change and fleeting color.

He chose earth, not fire and ash.

Left with two lifetimes of memorabilia and pictures.

She would have been “in pictures”,

but her father said “No, that’s final.”

Ashes to ashes,

hello, goodbye,

a flash of color—

and now?

Now only pictures and memories

whose colors continue to fade. Final

goodbyes —the Danube, Tchaikovsky,  her ashes.

Daffodils in the Danube

Born in Vienna,

she played piano

by ear, drove a Cadillac.

Her favorite flower― daffodils

She loved to gamble—

to win money.

Before she died, we argued about money.

She wanted her ashes in Vienna.

I hate to gamble,

can’t play piano.

Wish I’d sent her more daffodils.

Once, we had an accident in her Cadillac.

The telephone pole through the center of her Cadillac.

It must have cost a lot of money.

Spring begins with daffodils.

I visited Vienna

once.  Always have loved the piano.

Adoption is a gamble.

The hotel and bar business was a gamble.

She swung a baseball bat at trouble makers, cads and laughed.

Her biological daughter plays piano.

Her 2nd husband did not inherit the money.

She always wanted to go back to Vienna―

finally did  and  will again. Daffodils―

I can’t look at daffodils

without thinking of her. Gamble

that we’ll take her ashes to Vienna.

I worried about drowning in her burgundy Cadillac.

Always a subject and the object—money.

I’d wake up to her  piano

playing. I can see her at the piano

in Apricots’ lounge, a vase of daffodils

a jar filled with money.

Then, she’d be off to Mohegan to gamble,

speeding in her Cadillac,

handbag plump with tips and her pension from Vienna.

We will take her ashes to Vienna; my sister has her piano.

Into the Danube then, her Cadillac driving days and dozens of daffodils.

Life’s a gamble, far too short to argue about money.

“This could be your last 2 weeks with your Dad.”

4

“This could be your last 2 weeks with your Dad.”

My father’s ICU room at Castle Medical Center in Kailua, Oahu had the most amazing view. (A view most patients never saw.) I would stand there looking out the window and describe the lush green mountain with the steep red mud red trail slicing through it. I’d talk about how I wanted to hike up there and wave to him from the top like I used to on our Sunday hikes―running ahead just to turn around and see him smiling and waving back. Whether he could hear me or not, I’d give him my daily report on the pasture below and how the white mare, black colt and chestnut filly were grazing or frolicking. Sometimes the pasture was empty and no words came to me. I’d just sit watching for a sign of consciousness, my breath syncopating with the rhythm and hiss of his assisted respiration.

Well meaning friends offered “helpful” tidbits: “It’s over once they stop opening their eyes.” Dad’s eyes opened rarely and then only to scatter around the room like the crystal marbles with blue swirls he gave us as kids. When the nurse pulls me aside to say, “Honey, this could be your last two weeks with your Dad,” I relayed the message to my brother, Greg, and Dad’s sister.

My Dad had a soft spot for cats having adopted a scraggly wet stray on a rainy night in Springfield, MA. My friends whose guest house I was staying in had just rescued a silver tabby kitten with a broken leg. The cast seemed larger than its body. When I told the nurse my idea, she said she would look the other way… Dad opens his eyes and seemed to respond to the kitten.  Shortly after, his sister and favorite niece arrived.

Castle Medical Center, Kailua, Oahu

Journal Entries  9.18.99-9/26/99

9.18.99

Three days ago we got permission to wheel Dad out to the front of the hospital so he could see the mountain views and smell the sweet, soft Hawaiian air.  He was asking questions about getting home.

Two days ago, he had a “pulmonary incident”. In 7 days, we have gone from “potentially fatal” to “making good progress” and back to “critical” and “reason for concern.” Even at the ‘high” point, it was bleak—left-side paralysis, including his ability to swallow. “Tube feeding is necessary for an indefinite duration…”

One day taking a dip in the tropical Hawaiian water on the first day of our family vacation; the next day, incapacitated. Yes alive, but…

Dad never really lived. He worked hard and was very frugal. He had only recently (on our insistence) started to take annual vacations to visit us in California.

They said they would remove the breathing tube today and haven’t…

9.22.99

Serious blood infection (sepsis) now and pneumonia. His stomach function is impaired. They took the breathing tube out, but with his fever now, he has to wear an oxygen mask. I cut his nails today. Strange and difficult to cut someone else’s nails. Dad has always kept them clean and very short. They had grown long in this short time. Greg went home today.

The nurses move Dad every 2 hours to prevent bedsores.  They check his BP, respiration and O2 saturation readings, take his blood sugar and empty his urine bag. There’s a feeding tube through his nose.

9.24.99

More fever and a new highly contagious infection, MRSA. Visitors must wear masks and gloves. He was shaking with chill tremors. I feel helpless. It makes me claustrophobic to wear the mask and gloves.  I have a sense of how Dad must feel with the O2 mask on all the time.

They are talking about a tracheotomy… When he was first in this same room in ICU, I had described the pasture and the horses below to him each day. Today he said, “Greg told me about the horses out there.”  Actually, that was me, Dad…

9.25.99

There’s one tube for feeding/ intake and two for outtake now.  Dad has had several “bad” days in a row. We are, as they keep saying, “Taking one day at a time.” At night it seems as if I can almost map the drive from the hospital to the guesthouse by the smells –intensified in the darkness.  First the sewage treatment plant, then into the fecund native scents — fruits (mountain apple), flowers (plumeria, ginger), the ever verdant rain forest, pungent brown clay earth, the salty fish ocean smell— life rotting and thriving at once.

9.26.99

Nurse Kimi pulled me aside today to tell me, “Honey,  this could be your last  2 weeks with your Dad.” I read Dad the comics this morning. It was hard to keep from crying. Called Greg and Dad’s sister and relayed what Nurse Kimi had told me.

Important Papers

3

Important Papers

[Flashback]

The brown briefcase was well worn and had a lock on it. Whenever Dad would visit me in California, he would ask to put the briefcase in a safe place. “Dad,” I would reply, “the house is safe. I keep the doors locked.” Adding “What have you got in there anyway, Dad, gold bullion?” He would mutter something back about “important papers”, shake his head at me and seek out a special hiding place for it–behind the couch, in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. Living in Newport Beach, CA made it was easy for me to forget the crime ridden south side of Springfield, MA where my father lived and had been burglarized a dozen times. Just the previous year, Dad had been in the kitchen preparing dinner when he heard a noise in the living room. He peered around the door and saw a hand poking through the broken window trying to raise it. He grabbed the phone and dialed 911 and reported that someone was breaking into his house. The operator tried to keep him on the line, always polite, my father said, “I’m sorry I have to hang up now, the burglar is in my house.” He hung up the phone, grabbed a butcher knife and, at the age of 72, chased the young punk out of his house, through the yard, and into the arms of the police who had just arrived.

It was strange to be unlocking Dad’s briefcase, even with his permission, but bills had to be paid and that’s where his checkbook was. I found it buried under old bank, brokerage and mortgage statements. Mixed in with these were stacks of letters carefully rubber-banded together. Even though I’d found the checkbook, my curiosity got the better of me. I lifted a stack of letters and quickly looked at the writing on the envelopes, vaguely recognizing my own sloppy handwriting—these were letters I had written him from teenage years in boarding school to college in Virginia and adulthood California.

Father’s Day Tribute to Ted J. Dobbs

Life Lessons

Some fathers give their children advice and lectures on life, regardless of whether or not they ask for it. My father, a man of few words, managed to get the important themes across by simply being himself. Here are a few lessons that have stayed with me through the years:

Master your environment

After a dispute with the electric company, my father dismissed them and rigged the house with tiny bubbles of light charged by car batteries.

There’s always a brighter view

Dad used to bow down; offer me his shoulders, and slowly rise as my perspective changed from rough, brown trunks to fluttering green leaves.

Respect all critters

Dad used to catch the spiders that infiltrated the basement and release them behind the tool shed in the backyard.

It is really the thought that counts

Never one to send a Hallmark, dad had his own brand of greeting cards in the form of birthday, holiday, and made-up-occasion checks personalized with stick figure cartoons that danced across the memo lines.

He once picked a bouquet of New England Maple leaves, packed them between sheets of newspaper, and sent them to me in California. It was the first package I ever received from him and the most amazing package I’ve ever received.

You’re never too old to kick someone’s butt

At age 71, Dad chased a burglar out of his house and into the arms of the police.

It’s never to late to learn a new trick or trade

Dad wanted to keep working after he retired so he learned to operate a forklift at the age  of 72.

Life Lessons

Some fathers give their children advice and lectures on life, regardless of whether or not they ask for it. My father, a man of few words, managed to get the important themes across by simply being himself. Here are a few lessons that have stayed with me through the years:

 

Master your enviroment

After a dispute with the electric company, my father dismissed them and rigged the house with tiny bubbles of light charged by car batteries.

 

There’s always a brighter view

Dad used to bow down; offer me his shoulders, and slowly rise as my perspective changed from rough, brown trunks to fluttering green leaves.

 

Respect all critters

Dad used to catch the spiders that infiltrated the basement and release them behind the tool shed in the backyard.

 

It is really the thought that counts

Never one to send a Hallmark, dad had his own brand of greeting cards in the form of birthday, holiday, and made-up-occasion checks personalized with stick figure cartoons that danced across the memo lines.

 

He once picked a bouquet of New England Maple leaves, packed them between sheets of newspaper, and sent them to me in California. I was the first package I ever received from him and the most amazing package I’ve ever received.

 

You’re never too old to kick someone’s butt

At age 71, Dad chased a burglar out of his house and into the arms of the police.

 

It’s never to late to learn a new trick or trade

Dad wanted to keep working after he retired so he learned to operate a forklift at the age 72.

 

The virtues of strength and patience

Dad survived a disabilitating stroke at age 73, spent a year and ½ on a feeding tube, underwent rigorous rehab, and countless indignities over a span of 9 years and never complained.

 

Life Lessons

Some fathers give their children advice and lectures on life, regardless of whether or not they ask for it. My father, a man of few words, managed to get the important themes across by simply being himself. Here are a few lessons that have stayed with me through the years:

 

Master your enviroment

After a dispute with the electric company, my father dismissed them and rigged the house with tiny bubbles of light charged by car batteries.

 

There’s always a brighter view

Dad used to bow down; offer me his shoulders, and slowly rise as my perspective changed from rough, brown trunks to fluttering green leaves.

 

Respect all critters

Dad used to catch the spiders that infiltrated the basement and release them behind the tool shed in the backyard.

 

It is really the thought that counts

Never one to send a Hallmark, dad had his own brand of greeting cards in the form of birthday, holiday, and made-up-occasion checks personalized with stick figure cartoons that danced across the memo lines.

 

He once picked a bouquet of New England Maple leaves, packed them between sheets of newspaper, and sent them to me in California. I was the first package I ever received from him and the most amazing package I’ve ever received.

 

You’re never too old to kick someone’s butt

At age 71, Dad chased a burglar out of his house and into the arms of the police.

 

It’s never to late to learn a new trick or trade

Dad wanted to keep working after he retired so he learned to operate a forklift at the age 72.

 

The virtues of grace , forgiveness and humor

One afternoon,  Dad fell asleep while operating his electric wheelchair with me by his side and crashed off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic. Luckily, he survived with only a broken clavicle. I felt horribly responsible for not realizing how sleepy he was and not preventing his accident. He consoled me, “Don’t be ridiculous, I just wanted to see if it could fly.” Just like that he turned my tears and sadness into laughter.

For being my life’s inspiration and so much more, I celebrate my Dad this and every Father’s Day.

 

For being my life’s inspiration and so much more, I celebrate my Dad this Father’s Day.

 

Dad survived a debilitating stroke at age 73, spent a year and ½ on a feeding tube, underwent rigorous rehab, and countless indignities over a span of 9 years and never complained.

For being my life’s inspiration and so much more, I celebrate my Dad, Ted J. Dobbs, this Father’s Day.

Keep It

2

 Keep It

[Flashback to Dad post stroke preparing to leave the hospital in Hawaii]

Finally after 1 month in ICU, 1 month in telemetry, and 1 month in a rehab hospital, I was taking Dad “home with me back to California. He was going to rehab hospital in Long Beach and I was returning home to my life in Newport Beach. The day before our departure, I started packing up his belongs and sorting through what had accumulated—mostly clothes and hospital miscellany…Knowing how important it is to keep a stroke survivor or any ailing person as involved in their life as possible, I had the suitcase and the trash can in clear view as I held out each item and let Dad decide to “keep it” or “toss it”. Without exception, every item I held up, ranked a “Keep it” from Dad who had grown up in the Depression. My father’s cognitive faculties had not been impaired by the stroke; this was his frugal, utilitarian side dictating the proceedings. (When he wasn’t looking, I guiltily threw away the urinals and some other items  not worthy of transport.)

(9 Hillside Place)

There was no time to be sentimental but that didn’t stop the surge of emotions. I salvaged and packed the essentials and laid waste to the rest, easier said, than done, of course.  Operating on an enforced weekend deadline kept me moving like a frenzied zombie to get the job done. Dad isn’t dead, I kept reminding myself, even though it feels like it. Piles were growing into mounds. The workers were throwing stuff off of the second and third-floor balconies. I tried not to think about how horrified Dad would be. His one directive “Keep it” echoing in my head.

Some things were easier to throw onto the piles than others. Some were weighted  with nostalgia, like the dented old aluminum coffee percolator, the blue-fur jacket my dad used to wear when we were ice skating , the black winter cap with ear flaps and the white etched thunderbird emblem. In the basement, I wiped the dust off the seat of the heavy antique bike with the metal back seat that Dad used to strap me into and take me riding in Forest Park. I remember the time my foot got caught in the thick spokes. Amidst the chaos of my tears and crying, Dad silently kneeled down, removed my red Keds sneaker and enclosed my entire foot in his hand. It was all it took to make everything better.

The bike should have gone to a collector, but there was no time. Lined up against the rock wall were the rusted coffee cans Dad would use to “escort” spiders from the basement to a safe spot outside behind the tool shed. I gave the three-story ladder (Dad had single-handedly re-roofed his house a couple years ago- much to my out-of-state concern), the lawn mowers and other tools and equipment to the sleazy drunk in charge of the junk removal.  This was his first haul – things went downhill after that. At one point, he sat me down with his muscled posse and tried to renegotiate his fee by cornering me and putting a sizeable knife on the table between us., I rose up as if I were ten feet tall and possessed and trembling with anger, ordered him to get the hell out of my father’s house before I called the cops. How dare he threaten me in my father’s house?, I inquired in a voice I didn’t recognize as my own. Fortunately that was enough to send him scampering away. I told his workers that I would pay them if they finished the job, but no deal if their boss came back. The three tough guys were actually nice guys and they apologized for their boss’s behavior and finished the job quietly.

I packed Dad’s baseball cap collection, pictures, the small silver cross nailed above his bed, the pictures and useable clothing into his two large suitcases, one with the “snazzy” rope handle he had fashioned. All of my Dad’s worldly possessions at the age of 73 distilled down from 15 rooms to 2 suitcases and a briefcase of important papers.

9 Hillside Place

1

9 Hillside Place, May 1999

The house looked the same as when I stayed there with him in the summer of ’86, the year before I graduated from college and left for California. It was an imposing, three-story gray Victorian at the end of a dead end street in Springfield’s seedy south side. The only difference was Dad’s locked fence now extended to the lot next door where the tenement housing used to stand. Dad had gotten a great deal on the lot, cleaned it up, and extended his fence to include it.

I pulled the heavy set of keys out of my bag, narrowed them down to padlock keys and tried a couple before the padlock clicked open for me. It was strange to be there without him – without the “custom painted” (as in, Dad patched and painted the rust spots himself) station wagon in its spot.

My mother said there were murders down here all the time. I remember being a bit scared at the prospect of living there, but I figured anything was better than fighting with my mother and paying her rent to live in a closet (literally). At Dad’s, I would have my own room― rent and trouble-free. I am glad that she insisted that Dad get a phone before I moved in—it did help me feel safer. Dad was the only person I knew who didn’t have a phone. He said he liked it better that way—peace and quiet. I thought he liked it because Mom couldn’t call and bug him for money.

I paused at the front door, glancing at his handmade mailbox where hornets regularly made their nest. No activity today. I used to wait several steps below dad while he fiddled with the tiny lock on the mailbox. They would hover and swoop their legs dangling like hang gliders and he’d just calmly remove his mail. If you’re getting the idea that Dad had his eccentricities, you’re following along well. At some point, he had a dispute over a bill with the electric company. When they turned off his electricity, it didn’t faze him. Driving to and from work, he would charge a car battery in the front seat. In the evening, he’d bring the battery in, connect a wire or two and in a moment have the rooms he used (kitchen, bedroom and bathroom) sparkling with tiny bubbles of light. A cold closet off the kitchen served as a refrigerator. He lived like this for a number of years. Years later, when he had the electricity turned back on, he still went without a refrigerator.

I unlocked the front door and walked into the living room where Dad and I spent many evenings eating popcorn and watching tv together that summer. I shut the door and secured each of the three deadbolts. The air was always cool and slightly damp. Not much sunlight came in the house.  It always felt like being in a vault that had been sealed for a long time. I walked through the dining room that he never used and paused at the doorway of my bedroom, before heading into the kitchen.  This was really the center of the house.

Sundays of my childhood were Dad days. I remember standing on tiptoes next to the stove watching his coffee percolate a black gold flame dancing in its bubble top. The strong coffee aroma mixed with the rich, damp, sweet smell of his pipe tobacco and filled the small kitchen. I’d follow him back and forth as he set his mug on the table, got the condensed milk, put it back, got a spoon, stirred and finally sat down and took his first sip. “Now?” I’d ask.  And he would nod and let me climb aboard. He’d slip the colorful cartoon pages of The Sunday Republican out and start reading to me, using a different voice when the character changed. I couldn’t tell you know how much of the rest of the paper he read, but he would read the comics to me in their entirety. About halfway through, say by the time we got to Doonesbury, I’d start swinging my legs and fidgeting. If it was a rainy day, he might succumb to my pleading and unlock his bedroom door and let me explore in his dark closet. I’d dig back beyond all the shirts and jackets through their musty man’s smell to the red and black smoking robe. I’d wrap myself in it the belt twisted securely three times around my waist silk inadvertently caressing my body and floating away— a princess with a train. Once adorned I’d tunnel even further back and unearth the golden shaft of the long sword he was honored with during the war. I’d lean its heavy weight against me as I slid the blue velvet cover up just to touch the shiny engraved blade and quickly slip it back.

After spending that summer with Dad, I asked him if he still had that robe and if I could take it with me to California. He didn’t know what I wanted with that “old ratty thing”, but he let me. I knew the skeleton key would get me into Dad’s bedroom. I opened the door to my father’s bedroom to reveal his neatly made twin bed with an army blanket folded at the foot and a tiny silver cross above it. His desk held an old, broken double-frame picture of my brother, Gregory, and I on ponies at his annual Combustion Engineering Company Party and the black and white picture of his mother, an austere young woman. The newest additions were a ceiling fan and some “fancy” ceiling molding that he had installed. Even with those cosmetic embellishments, the room was Spartan, like that of a priest or a soldier. I sat down on the bed, the plastic squish of the cheap mattress and the squeak of the old springs quickly got me back on my feet and back to the job at hand—stacks of clothes to dispatch to Goodwill, files of paperwork to sort through and 15 rooms of miscellaneous rubbish and wreckage from my brother and myself―abandoned childhood games and broken toys, and all of Dad’s handyman appurtenances from tools to workbenches, saw horses and cans of varnish. Other than some power tools, a three-story ladder and miscellaneous equipment, there was nothing of any real value in the literal ton of junk that would be hauled away. My father’s house had been burglarized half a dozen times, any items of interest (the sword from the closet) had long since disappeared.

Counting Poem

This is the title poem for my memoir about my father. Not sure if I want to open or close the book with it. Maybe both? Plenty of time to deliberate ...

Counting

It was one, two, three,

upadad

and you’d lift me

high above your head

then set me on your shoulders.

It was one, two, three,

push

and I’d be soaring,

safely tucked in the toddler swing,

my feet waving at the tree tops.

It was one, two, three,

jump

when I sprang off

your slippery shoulders

and dove into the water.

It was one, two, three,

row

as we forged our way

down the Connecticut River

on dadmade rafts of air mattresses and wood.

Now it’s one, two, three,

upadad

as I transfer you

out of the wheelchair

and back into bed.

One, two, three,

three, two, one.