Sunday, June 01, 2008


If there was an Indian in my family's ancestry, as is rumored and as my mother used to say, my brother, Bud, was a poster child for the native Americans. He had the sun darkened skin, the brown, deepset eyes laced with a golden fleck, the black hair, the compact, sinewy body, and one could imagine him on horseback, clad in deerskin, bow and arrow sheathed on his shoulder.

Bud was the steady sort, a man who eventually served on a schoolboard, a man you could depend upon to do the right thing. If there was a breath of scandal to his life, it remained buried in France, where he had served for so long. He served in the Army and somehow survived the invasion on Omaha Beach and ended up in France where the Germans had ruled. He never talked about his wartime struggles, but came home to his wife, Connie, and his two boys and settled down to a life of domestic happiness.

He and Connie were polar opposites. She was a lively girl with reddish gold curls, a spattering of freckles on her face, and a sense of humor that pervaded every relationship. She could move like a dancer, cuss like a stevedore and keep a crowd laughing with her antics. When we gathered around the dining room table at the farm, it was Connie who made those meals delightful, Connie tossing a biscuit across the room, Connie who clambered up on the table to reach the gravy.

Yet there was a sensible side to her nature. When I wrote a poem about the family that contained a little slam...something about someone's hair and peroxide...she took me aside and calmly explained that I should never write anything that ridiculed another person, that I should use any gift I have to be uplifting, not degrading. I remembered that advice for a lifetime and, although I sometimes faltered along the way, I always tried to live up to the ideals Connie had expressed to me.

Bud disapproved of Connie's antics, but despite his frown, his eyes would twinkle and a grin would spread across his face. He was steady, stubborn and reserved. She was a madcap. One can imagine her frustration at times, as she needed to talk, to spout out her emotions, to reveal her feelings, and he needed to tuck his feelings away and go about life with a measured gait.

Despite this, their marriage survived and prospered. They loved children and, when their own children had grown up, would often drop by my home to play with my boys. Connie even thought the little handprints always decorating my windows were cute, while I considered them an affliction and used gallons of glass spray trying to wipe them away.

Connie, when Bud became afflicted with Parkinson's Disease, the slow, debilitating effects of this illness slowly robbing him of the ability to move and talk and live comfortably, was extremely devoted. When it became clear that home care was not possible, Bud was placed in a nursing home. Connie visited every day, watching over him, caring for him, making sure he received the best of care. The nurses loved her, sharing jokes with her, laughing with her and looking forward to her daily visits. Thus she made certain that Bud was receiving their attention, giving him that extra moment that made the difference between comfort and misery.

Bud died a slow death, his body wasting away, his ability to speak fading, his expression frozen with that frightening icy grip of Parkinson's, the tremor becoming more and more pronounced as the months went by, his body held in a rigid, viselike grip by the constant medication. Yet Connie stayed loyally at his side, and when the moment came and death could no longer be avoided, she was there, even though it was discovered that she had cancer.

I will never forget seeing her after the illness had taken her mobility from her, this little sick wisp of a woman in a wheelchair, no longer the lively catalyst of family gatherings. Her lovely golden hair was gone, of course, and she huddled in the chair, so small, so lost, so determined to fight the scourge that had afflicted her, a battle she was obviously losing.

For women, life is a narrow path. First, we are children, then grow older. We become sweethearts, wives and mothers and often feel as though we are mothers to our mates as well as our offspring. Then we become nurses, helping men through the frequently unbearable crises of aging. It is said in the Bible that men shall die first, and women will outlast them for seven years. This, of course, is not always the case, as there are exceptions along the way. However, Connie was robbed of those last few years, and followed Bud to the grave. One can imagine them in Paradise, with Connie this delightful, joking, laughing angel and Bud, his wings neatly folded, telling her to ""Quiet down, now. Let's just play our harps!"

They say that death is simply a part of life, but I have never accepted it. I have a tendency to rage at the Heavens when a loved one departs this life. I want to scream, to howl, to defy nature, shout out my anger at God. The sight of a dead sparrow enrages me, because God promised to feed and nurture this bird. The thought of thousands of dogs and cats led into incinerators fills me with grief. I don't even like to swat flies. My sons joke about me sitting on my porch, spraying wasps that had built their nest in my door frame, wailing like a hungry baby. Because my family is so large, we have had many funerals. I attend them, but I hate them. They offer no comfort for my pain.

However, Bud would have patted my back and said, "Now, listen. We have to accept this. We'll make it. Just hang on!" So many times I have asked fate just why he was given that glowing power of acceptance and serenity, when life is such an endless battle for me. He remains an enduring memory of just how life should be lived and contemplated, not as a willow weaving and bending and breaking in the wind, but as an oak tree, roots planted deep and branches withstanding the force of the howling and shattering storm.