Sunday, December 16, 2018

In the shadow of a dying light

Last week I made public that I'm done with the business of radio, and my mother in law didn't recognize my wife when she showed up at the hospital to see how she's doing.

There's an intersection here, somewhere, though I  struggle to find what it is.

We moved Oralie to Minnesota last summer, her Alzheimer's had made living on her own in the Berkshires problematic, and while my brother-in-law can provide the kind of help and support only a man of his boundless decency can, only  a daughter -- at least this daughter -- can provide the kind of attention and love that a dying light requires.

In the six months since Oralie arrived, I've seen a grace in the dying that I hadn't earlier recognized, and with each bit of patience, with each  attention to detail, with each far-off look that told me Carolie is off with her mother's worries, I increasingly wondered what I'm doing looking for meaning in such trivia as daily news.

I've never had the kind of relationship with my employers that a lot of people do. I like many of the people I work with, loathe one or two others, and cash a paycheck every other Friday. It's a business, not a family.

I loved radio, I enjoyed writing, I found an occasional creative satisfaction in the turns of a phrase, read by by, maybe 1,000 people who'd forget it shortly thereafter. But the job of our jobs is to fund our lives.

"A paycheck is what you get in exchange for your life's energies," an author of a book on how to retire after 30 and live the good life in Vermont once told me on a talk show I was hosting on MPR.

She was mostly full of shit in her book (the secret to retiring in your 30s is to become a millionaire in your 20's), but not that. Your job is not your life.

My job was to make enough money so Carolie could do the things she does that changes people's lives.   This reality became clear years ago when she told me about her day; a young woman, possibly pregnant, addicted, and homeless -- if I recall correctly -- showed up at her office for help.  She was an  impossible task.But by the end of her day, Carolie had her housing, health care, and food.

"I wrote a blog today," I said.

Carolie no longer has that job; the county and hospital that ran the program for that sort of direct aid and results, decided there was better money spent somewhere else. She moved on to another job where lost causes can get a day's hope.

But watching her with her mom is clearly an extension of the goodness and love she brings to her job.  Her patience seems inexhaustible, though I can also see the damage of watching your mother slip away.

Mine is 97. And I haven't seen her in a year.   I write a blog. My performance review is based on page views. My workplace doesn't staff the blog when I'm gone.There are no page views when I'm gone.Ergo, I don't go away.

That's absurd and I know it's absurd, and yet, I let something insigificant define my place on the planet.

When my Meniere's Disease spread to the "good ear" in November, my "eureka" moment came during one of the wretched night of vomiting from the constant resulting vertigo. "What are you doing?"

The next day I told the boss that May 31-- my 65th birthday, the day I would be eligible for Medicare -- would be my last.  I can't do the things I need to do to write at a high level (involving phone calls I can't hear, and interviews I can't participate in).  But even if I could, it no longer serves an appropriate purpose.

I have other things I can do. I love ushering at Target Field. I love driving people with Lyft (every evening is like I'm doing a radio talk show with open lines again), and,  of course, I love building airplanes.

But what I really want to do is be a better backstop for a woman whose mother didn't recognize her last week. 

Oralie is a delightful, proper, polite yankee woman whose Alzheimer's is removing a filter one by one.  She had suddenly hit another resident in the  $7,000 a month  memory care facility that believes the answer to everything is to call an ambulance and send elderly people to the local ER and let it be their problem.

So for the last week, she's been in a geriatric psychiatric unit in St. Paul, getting the attention she needs.

That's where Carolie showed up the other day, and  announced to her mom that she is her daughter.

"You're my daughter?" Oralie replied, never quite making the connection.

An illness has broken out in the unit now, so everyone is quarantined.We can't visit.

When Carolie called yesterday, Oralie took the phone from the nurse and said, "I can't talk now, I've got a fishing rod in my hand and I'm reeling in a big fish. Bye!" [click]

My wife is good at resuming normal activities and if you weren't paying attention, you'd marvel at her resilience. But she is not resilient.  At least not that resilient.

After yesterday's matinee of Noises Off at the Guthrie Theater, we stopped into a nearby restaurant, and when the food was delivered and we started to dive in, her eyes said she was somewhere else.

"You OK?" I asked.

"My mom," she said, no needing to say anything more.

Though she's never said anything, I can hear what's going on in the mind of a daughter of a woman with Alzheimer's. "Is this what's next for me?"

I can't think of much that's more torturous.

In the coming weeks, we hope to move her mom to another facility closer to Woodbury, one that is better at putting the "care" in memory care.

What's coming will be tragic,exhausting, and, ultimately, full of grace, but require an investment of our life's energy that we exchanged for a paycheck.

I've still got plenty to spend.

Friday, February 19, 2016

When you laugh instead of cry

This week I found some of my old favorite pictures that were taken in the film-era and started digitizing them. Not surprisingly, it brought back plenty of memories for me, and, as it turned out, for my oldest son who saw this one on Facebook.

That's his grandfather, who died in 2009. Don was one of my son's biggest champs, particularly at a time when, kids being what they are and all, it was tough to find people to stand in your corner.

"This photo is my second or 3rd favorite with Papa, but only because he will always have that arm on my shoulder in support and unconditional pride," my son wrote on Facebook.

Then he wrote me a note about a slideshow tribute I created for him when his grandfather died.

"You told me the point of said death slideshow was to watch it until one day I smile instead of cry," he recalled. "When is that day?"

I don't know, I said, I'm not quite there yet myself.

It was 12 years ago on Monday that my own father died and when I was looking for pictures to digitize, I came across this one.

When I saw it, I burst out laughing. Because that was my father.

When is that day coming for you, son? Someday.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

On my son's 30th birthday

Old people tell young people all the time that life is short and passes fast and young people don't believe it. It's been that way since the earth started turning.

My son, Sean, turned 30 today and while it seems like it was only yesterday, more reflection reveals how much has been packed into those 30 years.

When he was a baby, Sean wasn't really into being held and rocked. As a toddler, when you picked him up to hold, he'd go limp so he'd slither back down. Sean was always in a hurry to be on his own.

Of my 62 years, I've spent almost half of them now thinking about Sean, off somewhere being on his own, and worrying about him and his brother. As I've written before, the Collinses come from a long line of worriers. It's what we do, even though it accomplishes nothing.

But your children are capable of constant surprises.

Like this one that occurred at Oshkosh this year (the picture above was taken at Oshkosh).

The night Sean and I flew over for the second half of AirVenture (his brother, Patrick, and I had flown over for the first half), we walked over to a restaurant on the other side of the airport, for which there was along line. We were invited to cool our heels at the karaoke bar outside; and so we did.

Sean, who I think is the type not to put himself "out there"(like his father, to a degree), grabbed the list of songs and searched for a proper victim.

I told him I was surprised he'd get up in front of people and sing. But he said he had a friend who took him to a karaoke bar not long ago and got up to sing. And he said if she could do it, then he could too.

And so he did, and while the Doors' People are Strange might not have been exactly pitch perfect, it was perfect, nonetheless.

And that's the way our children are. Like the rest of us, they are not perfect. And yet they are.

Friday, February 27, 2015

When times are perfect

Back when my two sons were very young (10 or 11 or so), I shared a pair of season tickets to the Minnesota Timberwolves with some people at work. It provided a good opportunity to spend some time with each kid.

At the time, the Timberwolves were a pretty good team, thanks primarily to a 19-year old kid named Kevin Garnett.

The games were fun, but incidental to the goal -- time. Good times.

On several occasions, the times were perfect. I'd be sitting watching my son -- both of them at different times -- full into the moment, late in a game, standing and cheering with the rest of a sold-out house.

"This is perfect," I would think to myself. "I want this feeling to last forever."

It didn't last forever, of course. Perfect times are few. We do the best we can, we deal the things life throws our way and we move along.

I've had season tickets to the Timberwolves for many years since, although I gave them up this season because the quality of the product hasn't been very good, even though the goal stayed the same -- spending time with my kids.

But last week, the Timberwolves made a trade, to bring Garnett, now almost 39, back to the city. And Sean, and Patrick and I had already made plans to attend the game on Wednesday night, days before we knew that for the first time in more than a decade, the good times were possible again.

We struggle to explain these moments -- and the Garnett return in particular -- to those who don't follow sports. Yes, it's about a game, but it's also about moments.

My oldest son, Sean, almost 30 now, dug out the foam finger with "#23 KG" scribbled on it. Garnett had given him the autograph when he was 19, when Sean was 10. Patrick, soon to be a 27 year old, brought his passion, which he's brought to every day since the day he was born, I think.

And together we went back in time. And as Garnett lifted the crowd for more than two hours, the crowd lifted us.

At various times, I watched my 30 year old and my 28 year old stand and cheer with the sold-out house. And I sat and thought, "This is perfect. I want this feeling to last forever."

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Meeting Ernie Crippen

Sixty-eight years ago tomorrow, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, three days after it dropped one on Hiroshima. The day will go unmentioned, just as the anniversary of Hiroshima generally went unrecognized on Tuesday. It wasn't long ago that the end of war in the Pacific had significance for a country that shared the experience of a world war. But those days are gone and the few people left who lived the history soon will be.

That's why I don't turn down any opportunity to talk to the people who fought the war in whatever capacity; there aren't many left.

So when Ernie Crippen of Buffalo started a sentence in our conversation yesterday with, "when we were being bombed and strafed on Guadalcanal," I was immediately aware that it was the first -- and probably the last -- time someone will ever say that to me, just as I was similarly aware last week when a veteran in Luverne showed me a scar and said, "I got that parachuting into Bastogne."

We get many opportunities in our lives to learn history from those who live it, but we take advantage of precious few of them. And time, as it has forever, is running out. Mr. Crippen has the benefit of his children, Mike and Amy, who have helped him preserve his history.

Crippen, 91, like thousands of other Minnesota kids, saw the military draft coming in 1942 when he was cutting timber in Bemidji. So he joined the Navy for a six-year engagement as a Seabee -- the Navy's construction brigades.

"The fighting was mostly over when we arrived on Guadalcanal," he told me while I leafed through his meticulously-kept scrapbooks yesterday. And by "mostly over," he meant, except for the occasional attacks by Japanese planes trying to kill him. In April 1943, he wrote in an autobiography, he was part of a crew unloading supplies from a ship offshore when an attack came. All the regular crew had gone ashore, so the Seabees took the ship into open water, shooting down one plane in the process. Some of the men shielded themselves from bullets with the only thing they had nearby: canvas.

You don't get a lot of stories like that from kids in Bemidji anymore. Or about the time Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna sat with him at dinner before a USO tour, the bugler who got into trouble for playing "Blues in the Night" instead of Taps or about being told he was to be part of the U.S. invasion force of Japan. "We were told the casualties might number 750,000," he said. "It was sobering."

"What was the last thing your father said to you before you went off to war?" I asked.

"I remember it clearly," he said. "We were sitting at the depot in Bemidji and I said, 'I might not come back.' He said, 'You have to turn that around and think different.'"

The atomic bombs brought Japan's capitulation. A month later, the kid from Bemidji was working the docks in Sasebo, Japan, a bombed-out former Japanese Navy base. And a few months after that, he was walking through what was left of Nagasaki.

"It was amazing to me at the time that something dropped from the sky could turn steel and concrete into nothing but dust," he said.

He couldn't show that picture to anyone until he got home to Bemidji. The military didn't allow anyone to send photos of the destruction home. Technically, servicemen weren't supposed to have cameras, but, as he had during the rest of the war, Crippen kept notes and pictures, knowing that someday he'd be sharing it.

His stops read like a who's who of war in the Pacific: Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tokyo, the rest of the Solomons, New Caledonia, and the Aleutians.

For the veterans of it, World War II was life's biggest paradox. A gruesome habit of nations' instinct to kill another's soldiers provided the opportunities to see parts of the world most people will never see, and a seemingly endless number of friendships that survive through post-war "real life," which for Mr. Crippen included years as an engineer for MnDOT and a wedding photography business with his wife.

But there's no such thing as "endless" in life. As he showed me a scrapbook of his pictures, Crippen noted that most everyone in it is dead now. His construction unit stopped its annual reunions in 2006; There weren't many people left or able to attend.

But next week, there'll be one more. A few weeks ago, the family of an Indiana man found Crippen after a search. The two men had served together. The man from Indiana recently had a stroke and wanted to see Crippen again. Next week, they'll meet halfway -- Iowa -- and turn back time.

Mr. Crippen will bring the scrapbooks and history in the first person with him.

(This post was originally published in Minnesota Public Radio's NewsCut blog)

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The sidewalk

The construction crew arrived today to take out the old blacktop driveway that I have been trying to nurse through another season for the last 10 years. But it is finally time for it to go; it will be replaced by a concrete driveway instead.

I looked out a few minutes ago to see how they were doing, and as luck would have it, they were just digging up a small piece of concrete that I poured many years ago to extend the driveway.

It wasn't a particularly good job but that little 2x4 slab of concrete has always meant a lot to me, because my son Sean and I built it.

Sean was pretty young at the time, maybe 7 or so, an age when most kids have the attention span of mice. But like the sidewalk we built out back one year, he was all in on the project. It was hot, hot enough to make smart people head for the AC. And he had every reason to. But he stayed and he dug and he mixed cement and he breathed dust and he got dirty and he built a sidewalk with his dad.

It was the way he subsequently approached every job and task he ever had. He was all in.

The new driveway and sidewalk will be a big improvement over what's there now.

But I'm going to miss that slab.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The need to win

I accept as a casualty of my age that I am more prone to believing that elements of our cultural past have lessons for our cultural present, but there is no way for me to avoid the conclusion as I've read this week's outstanding Star Tribune series on the money in youth sports. Fat cat boosters and parents who want their children to win have transformed the nature of the game. Advocates still tell us that high school sports, in particular, can teach children valuable life lessons. Here's the life lesson we should learn from the series: Don't let adults run youth sports.

Over the course of three days, the series has drilled a constant message from the "haves" and the "have nots." It's unfair, it has said, that some teams have more money -- and thus resources -- than others. The sadness of the series is that few people involved have noted the cultural calamity of our need to win.

There are only three things that people have said to me over these years that I have not forgotten. After I graduated from college and was looking for work in a fleeting period in our history when we weren't fighting other counties' wars, my father said, "If you want job security, join the Army."

An ex-colleague, at a reunion party for a radio network where I once worked, casually remarked, "Man, we were glad to see you go."

And a coach of a summer club hockey team said to me, "because I want to win."

I played high school and college hockey, and that sounds more impressive than it really is. I made my college team because I was the only player who could skate backwards. I beat out 30-40 other schoolmates in high school to be the last guy on the team. I didn't play much and when I did, the game was usually over. In my sophomore year, my team was 0-19-1, having tied the last game of the year. I didn't play much; my undistinguished career featured eight years of organized play, no goals scored.

To my knowledge, the only picture of me in action is this one. I'm number 5. Playing the bench like nobody's business.

In my junior year, I was recruited to play a summer league team. A family acquaintance was the coach. Because the team was mostly made up of my high school team, I, again, didn't play much. Midway through the season, we held a lead against some team I don't recall, it was late in the game, and I wanted to play. This was a summer recreational league.

"Can I play?" I said to the coach.

"Not now," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because I want to win," he said.

I never went back for another game.

I have few recollections of any of the games my teams played now. But I recall with ease, the pick-up games on a pond across the street with my pals in the neighborhood, and my hockey-loving older brother, who died a year ago. A neighborhood hockey rat didn't have shin pads -- "Termite" was his name (we had nicknames for kids back then) -- so he taped comic books to his legs.

Youth sports were the park & rec games in the ballyard behind my house (since turned into a soccer pitch, but that's another story). It's been more than 45 years since I stabbed the vicious line drive shortly before it hit one of the Shaw twins' face. I can still see the expression on his face. They're both dead now; someone said drugs were involved.

But there was a joy to being a kid playing youth sports and we have ruined that joy in the name of teaching kids life's lessons.

The ballparks in my neighborhood now are mostly empty. The kids are playing down at the big sports complex in front of the same sorts of parents I became, who lament that the traveling teams from Edina have better uniforms. After some games, as I recall, the coach -- whose son usually was the starting pitcher -- navigated a sea of parents wanting to know why their kid wasn't playing.

He didn't say "because I want to win," but he didn't have to. Winning was the point. Winning is still the point.

A few weeks ago, the Twins made a big splash out of showing a 20-year-old movie on the scoreboard. The Sandlot embodied the childhood games some of us are lucky to remember. On Twitter, an acquaintance objected to the fuss people were making. "It's not Citizen Kane," he said. And, he's right; it's not. But Citizen Kane never reminded us of the role of childhood games before my generation grew up to ruin them.

No doubt the takeaway from the Star Tribune's series will be that the "have not" teams should get more money. Here's an old man's idea: Give all the teams no money. Point to the field, and tell them "go have some fun on your own."

That's a quote they'll remember forever.