I’m dying, and I know it

No, I don’t have cancer or some other fatal illness. The doctor has not given me any bad news. In fact, I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in over 20 years. I’ve dropped 65 pounds by eating less and moving more, quit drinking, and due to an earlier-than-planned semi-forced retirement I have found more time on my hands to work on my mental and spiritual health as well as my physical health. But I’m still dying, and I know it.

We all die. It’s just another part of life. Some do it well, and others go scratching and screaming. Most of us hardly give it a thought. Sure, it will happen someday. Not now. Not today, or this week. Probably not even this year. Heck, I have so many things I still have to do. My calendar is full – as if we really have any say in the matter. Each of us has a date that we will die etched in some Big Book up in heaven (God has every detail of our lives set according to His plan), or maybe we just croak because shit happens in this wonderful, chaotic, mysterious universe that we little carbon units inhabit for a brief moment as we hurtle through space and time. But we all die. Our “life” comes to an end – maybe after a long drawn out illness, in a tragic accident, an unexpected heart attack, or in our sleep at the end of a life well lived surrounded by those who love you – one can only hope.

It’s not the dying that bothers me, it’s the “knowing it” that challenges me. Since I don’t know what date got etched into that Big Book, and I don’t know how many of those loved ones will care enough to be standing around my bed as I slip away in my sleep shortly after blowing out the candles on my 100th birthday cake (yes, I’ve put in for that exit option), I need to make use of the time I have left. Better use of the time I have left. I need to keep my impending demise close to my calendar, because it is the scarcity of remaining days that gives value to each one I have left. At 66 years old most of my life is behind me, but with age comes a little wisdom – where the years and the miles intersect with experience to grant a clearer view than we had when our eyes were sharper but our knees were bloodied from our youthful stumbles and falls.

I have tried hard not to waste this time that has been made available and believe that this unplanned detour in my life has led, and will lead, to new opportunities – if I’m alert enough to be “present” when they appear. I have to pay attention. I have to make each day count.

Advertisements

Back to the campfire

Fidgeting, I pull my stick back from the fire and stare at the tip – the flame wisps away and the glow quickly fades. The night chill gives me shivers and I pull the blanket a little tighter around my shoulders as I try in vain to ward off the cold in my aching bones. Smoke silently curls up through the branches overhead and vanishes into the dark night sky. Your laugh brings my wandering mind back. Your faces are obscured by the thin veil of smoke that separates us but your laugh reassures me in the loneliness and the cold.

Why do I sit here alone? You are so animated as you talk and engage our friend in conversation by the fire. Lost in my own thoughts I wasn’t listening – you are always talking with someone – showing them the possibilities and hope found in another way. Why don’t we listen to you? Why don’t we follow you? Not just along the wandering dirt paths you journey upon, but your teachings. They aren’t just words, but doing what you ask is so much harder than merely hearing your words. My feet seem stuck in the clay. You are on a fool’s journey trying to share your message of hope and kindness. It’s manna for our broken spirits but your words are so quickly forgotten in the midst of living in this god forsaken place. But there you are, laughing and sharing stories with your friend, enjoying each other’s company, while I sit here and shiver in the cold. What holds me to this log? Why don’t I get up and walk around the fire to join in the conversation with you? What am I afraid of? Is there nothing I could add? Or learn? Aren’t I good enough? You are the teacher, and in the years since we met I’ve listened to everything you’ve said, but it’s all in my head and not in my heart. Why do I “think” to the point where I can’t “act”?

A flame reignites in one small part of the dying campfire and the light briefly shoos away the darkness. I poke the end of my stick into the flame and watch as the tip begins to glow brightly once again and then bursts into a dancing flame. I remember. Slowly, I pull the stick back from the fire and watch as the flame quickly goes out and the glowing tip fades away. Just like this twig that I poke into the fire, my heart warms and glows brightest when I am near you but quickly fades and cools when I turn away. Or sit here on this log. Distant. Alone. Away from you. Watching, but not engaging. Listening, but not hearing. You have not moved away from me – I picked this place. It was my choice, but I can choose another way – right?

Our friend uses his own stick to stir up the fire’s remaining embers and puts a few more pieces of dry wood on top of the glowing ash. You stretch and yawn – it has been a long day and the hour is img_4396late. Your arm wraps around our friend in a reassuring way. The fire snaps and crackles as it smolders. The fire finds new life as flames begin to dance and grow higher. I feel the warmth on my face and it slowly sinks into my bones. Your faces, visible once again through the wispy smoke curling up from the glowing fire, are smiling. With so much on your mind, how can you be laughing tonight? People want you dead – our lives are all in peril – but you show no fear. No regrets. You still have strength to share stories and jokes, to help our friend with his worries, and to listen to his concerns. You don’t judge, you put yourself in his shoes. You’re willing to carry his pain so he knows he’s not alone. Along the paths we travel together, as we walk through desolate villages, you stop and talk with everyone you meet. You smile and reassure. You listen. You touch and hug. You care – you genuinely care. And yet you have nothing – no bags, and no baggage. Poor by any person’s measure, but you give thanks for what you have as if you were the wealthiest man alive. A man with nothing who has everything.

Pulling my stick out of the fire once again I watch the tip – the flame disappears and the glow fades away. Life drains out. Hope is gone. Warmth retreats and the reassuring crackling of the fire is replaced by the unsettling sounds of the night. I’m cold. I’m alone. I’m scared. Why do I choose this?

The stick is dead. The tip is cold and black. I tap it on the ground and watch the charred tip break off and crumble into the sandy dirt at my feet. I stare at the stick for a few minutes and then slowly take it in both of my hands and snap it in half across my thigh. I toss the two pieces into the fire. Pulling the blanket a little tighter around my shoulders once again, I get up slowly and walk around what’s left of the fire, toward my friends. A smile spreads across my face with each step I take. I can pick a new direction. I don’t have to be alone.

The Simple Green Candle

The box showed up on our doorstep a few days before Christmas. It was addressed to Mom and Dad so it wasn’t one of our Amazon boxes for the kids or grandkids, but I wasn’t sure which of our 3 daughters had sent it. I added the brown cardboard unwrapped shipping box with a UPS label to the pile of colorfully wrapped packages under the tree (but not before giving it a shake, analyzing the weight, and using those well honed Christmas skills to assess an unknown gift).

Our traditional Christmas Eve family gathering got rescheduled due to flu bugs running rampant in the Adams family household, but we all gathered a couple of days later for our traditional Christmas hors d’vours and gift exchange.

Ruby and Sawyer fell right into the excitement of the evening. The boxes under the tree, which had been tempting but taboo to explore for weeks, were now pulled out from under the branches and became fair game for excited toddlers. Names were read, packages delivered by Sawyer to their intended recipient, bows removed (and stuck on Ruby, to her gleeful delight, or one of the dogs who seemed less amused). Ripped off wrapping paper was balled up and tossed to Megan to stick in the large green garbage bag. The kids had specific requests in their letters to Santa helping all his elves deliver a sleighfull of surprises that brought huge smiles, sparkling eyes full of wonderment, and shrieks of joy! The adults, too, smiled at the thoughtfulness of wishes remembered.

Even though it was addressed to Mom and Dad it must have been my turn because the brown cardboard unwrapped shipping box with a UPS label, of slight rattle and relative weight, landed on my lap to open. I took out my pen knife to slit the packing tape and opened the box. The smell of the North Woods filled my nose. Inside was a card from Emily and Karlin and a simple dark green Douglas Fur scented candle which easily correlated with the weight and rattle in the unopened box. From that first moment this gift gave me pause – it was so simple. It reminded me of the Little Drummer Boy who only had the gift of his song – rump pum pum, pum. So sweet. I knew immediately I’d use it during dinners with mom (TV off), my daily morning devotions and yoga, and when I sit down with my trusty legal pad to write. Lighting this Simple Green Candle would bring close those fun memories of our summer visits to Emily’s family in the Teton Valley and our drives up through the forest to Targhee.

I placed it gently back into the box, for the trip home, with a knowing smile of the hours ahead that I’d be sharing with that Simple Green Candle as it spreads its soft dancing light across my blank page and sets my mind to wandering.

This is not about a diet, or putting a cork in the bottle

 

This is a journey of personal change. It began on August 5th, 2015 when, at 230 pounds, I said “enough!” and started walking at Staring Lake. Those first laps around the 2-1/4 mile path were hot, sweaty ordeals – putting one foot in front of the other, dreading the slightest of hills, and looking like an old, out of shape, white guy, huffing and puffing as sleek walkers/joggers breezed by with fine tuned gaits. With brutish determination I came back the next day, and the next. Then I downloaded My Fitness Pal and Pacer on my iPhone to start tracking my food, exercise, and daily weight. I bought warm clothes to continue walking through the winter. Weight came off. I even made it through Thanksgiving and Christmas without getting off my diet. Well, it’s not really a diet – it’s just eat lessmove more, record, and repeat. 

Then I ended up in a ditch in Wisconsin on January 16th, 2016.

“You could have killed somebody” are the words Deputy Kaschinske spoke to me in the ER at Divine Savior Hospital and they changed my life. I had been on my way to Lake Geneva and on to Chicago to visit my dying uncle Lee when I made bad choices. I returned home the following Monday and told Veloice everything that had happened. After 41 years of marriage that was one of the hardest conversations we’ve ever had.

Over the next couple of days I put together a plan to make sure I tackled this problem head on and knew that it would take honesty and transparency as I shared what happened with people that could help me.

On Tuesday I called Rolf Simonson, my family doctor, and made an appointment. I told him what happened and he recommended I talk to someone in Mental Health at Park Nicollet as a way of understanding what may have triggered my sadness and poor choices. I will never forget the grim expression on his face when we talked about alcohol abuse.

Later that week I called two of my 3 grown daughters (who live in the Twin Cities) and had them come over to our house. With Veloice present I told them what happened and then met with both daughters a week later, individually, to turn every stone and let them know all the steps I was taking to ensure that this never happens again. My other daughter lives in Idaho with her family and I drove out a week later to talk to her in person.

Next I called Larry Nordby, a co-worker that has become a very good friend over the past 5 years. We enjoy going on motorcycle trips together and I knew that Larry had been in recovery for over 30 years. We met and I told him all of the details of what happened in Wisconsin. Larry gave me valuable personal insight and suggested we go to an AA meeting. He offered to be my sponsor and we attended weekly meetings together – an essential step in my road to recovery.

Shortly after returning from Wisconsin I sent an email to Randy Haar (Director of Transportation, Eden Prairie Schools) resigning my position as a school bus driver and district trainer. I had already planned to have coffee with him the next day so we also met in person. While I officially resigned for “personal reasons” I told Randy about my OWI and that I could not continue in my role as a bus driver. Randy was very supportive and offered his help in any way possible. My part time “retirement” job as a bus driver meant the world to me. I loved this job and looked forward to going to work every day. I knew every one of my kids by name – and the names of many of their parents and siblings. My annual reviews were exceptional and I took great pride in doing my job to the best of my ability. Last spring I was honored by the Transportation Department as Employee of the Year for 2015. In addition to being a bus driver for 7 years I had been selected as a district trainer after only one year on the job – that had never been done before. For 6 years I had been responsible for training all new drivers and the annual re-certification of over 100 drivers in the district. In addition, as a certified trainer, I taught our department’s Smith Driving System classes and focused on safe driving techniques. A large portion of our training had to do with recognizing distracted and impaired driving behaviors. For me to get an OWI cut me to the core. Just realizing that I had put myself in a position that could have resulted in someone else getting hurt or killed due to my own stupidity hurt me more than I can ever convey with words.

As a follow up to the visit with my family doctor I scheduled an appointment with Ron Johnson at Park Nicollet Mental Health Services. Ron specializes in addiction and relationship counseling. I had my first visit on March 14th and have continued to meet twice a month for the past year. At the end of our first session I asked Ron what he thought – he said that “normally he would spend the next 3 sessions getting his patient to take the steps that I had already taken.” He felt that I was addressing the issue head on and had a great network of people to support my efforts.

On November 4th I had my annual physical at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center with Dr. James Wallace. He was the doctor who told me two years ago that it would be a good for me to lose weight. On this visit he was excited that I had hit my goal of 170 (losing 60 pounds over the past 16 months). Then I told him what happened in Wisconsin last January and the steps I had taken to confront my problem with alcohol. He suggested I go for an assessment and get familiar with the resources that are offered through the VA, but was encouraged by the progress I had already made. I went for an assessment with Susan Spindler on November 29th.

What happened to me in Portage, WI will never happen again. It is not who I am and it is not who I want to be. I served in Vietnam (aircraft crew chief in the Army Security Agency – part of the NSA – with a Top Secret clearance) and have a service connected disability. I put myself through the University of Colorado, worked in executive management throughout my 35 year business career, have a credit score of 832, been married for 41 years, and we’ve raised 3 wonderful daughters who all have college degrees, work, and have great guys in their lives. I served for 10 years on the board of “A Better Chance” – a 501(c)3 that brought deserving kids from inner city schools around the country for high school in Eden Prairie. In 1998 I was the recipient of the Eden Prairie Human Rights Award in recognition of my efforts as a co-founder of the Eden Prairie Bias Crime Response Network (BCRN). I’ve led two teams to work with Andean Rural Health Care in the altiplano region of Bolivia. In 2010 I was appointed to the Eden Prairie Human Rights and Diversity Commission by the city counsel for a 3 year term and served as its Vice Chair. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. While talking with Veloice the other night I told her that I could never go through looking in her eyes, or the eyes of my 3 daughters, and telling them that I had been drinking again. It won’t happen. It simfullsizerender-1ply can’t happen, and I am committed to seeing that it doesn’t happen again.

Now, down 65 pounds (5 pounds below my goal of 170 – and 15 pounds less than my doctor’s goal), and having remained sober for over a year, I am fully engaged in this process of self-evaluation and personal change.

It is not about a diet to lose a few pounds or about putting a cork in the bottle. It is about taking little steps everyday until they become healthy habits. It’s about taking a different path than the one I was on. It’s about looking in the mirror in the morning and wanting to understand the guy that’s looking back. It’s about listening more and talking less. It’s about finding and using new tools (and getting rid of the rusty old ones that are no longer useful). It’s about growing wiser (not older). It’s about being a kid again (while delighting in being a grandpa). It’s about trying to be a friend to Veloice (not just a roommate and husband). It’s about picking at old scabs, thoroughly cleaning the wound, and applying a bandage so it heals completely. It’s about finding the words to have a heart to heart conversation with God (not the argument that has echoed in my brain for years).

Three months ago I had surgery on my right thumb to resolve the pain of bone-on-bone arthritis. It’s a slow recovery (6-8 months) but better to get it taken care of now rather than let theimg_4157 maladies of aging accumulate and slowly take their toll. Yesterday I had surgery to fix a hernia. And in 12 days I’ll go back to TRIA to get my left thumb operated on (now that my right thumb is well on its way to full functionality). I’m not a glutton for punishment, but I won’t hesitate to fix the things I can fix as I get older. The day will come when the doc tells me I have something he can’t fix and I’ll be ready to deal with that when the time comes. Today I’m in the best shape I’ve been in for many years, and I intend to do everything I can to continue on this path of paying attention to my mental and physical well-being so I can be active and enjoy this 3rd act in my life.

These past 18 months have taken me on an incredible personal journey – from that first sweaty walk at Staring Lake when I made the decision to lose weight, driving into a ditch in Wisconsin, and navigating through the long, tedious process of recovery. I’ve had to fight through feelings of shame, anger, humiliation, resentment, and disappointment while searching for the long hidden root causes for each of these destructive emotions. I’ve had to strip myself down to the studs before I could begin the process of rebuilding who I am from the ground up. I’ve had to confront issues that have been buried deep inside and shed light on dark places that have been ignored for far too long. It is a slow process. As my dear friend, Larry, told me: It’s the loneliest journey you ever take with friends. Nobody can do it for you, and quitting is not an option. It’s hard work. But as I look back on the past 18 months I know my life has been changed and I’m now in a place where smiles come easily and I like the guy in the mirror once again.

This is a journey that learns from yesterday, delights in today, and is hopeful for tomorrow.

One step at a time.

Left and Write. The jottings of a progressive curmudgeon.