Monday, December 29, 2014

Last Year

At this time last year, I was asleep.  I was sleeping on a couch in the room next to Mom's room.  Dad was in her room sleeping on the pull out couch. Steph was next to her keeping vigil, probably catching a few winks here or there.  At this time last year, I was beyond exhausted.  So you would think I would have been sleeping soundly.  But I tossed and turned a bit that night.  At this time last year I was dreaming of a place I often visit in my dreams.  A city, out of which runs a dirt road that goes past a small, grass strip airfield lined with hangars full of my favorite airplanes.  A few miles beyond the airport is a solitary house in the middle of wide open fields.  Iowa fields. Flat, beautiful farm fields.

The house is the same one my grandparents retired to after they had spent a lifetime farming.  In real life, that house is in a little neighborhood.  In my dream, it stands alone.  When I dream of my city, I seldom get a chance to go visit that house.  Often when I find myself on the road, I get distracted at the airport and end up going flying.  Occasionally I'll remember that I really want to go visit the house, and I'll float on past the airport, running with glee to the house.

When I get there, it is always a delight.  Because when I open the door and step inside, the interior is identical to the old farmhouse where my grandparents lived.  Opa is in his chair by the stairs, Nana in a chair next to him, the other room filled with relatives I never knew because they died before I was born.  After my aunt Bobbi died, she appeared there, always sitting on the couch with various critters she loved.  Mandy, Muffin, Tuck and others.  

Last year on this night when I walked in they were all smiling brightly.  I stood in the entry room, and waved.  I seldom get to chat with anyone.  Most of the time it's just a wave and a smile and I wake up.  On this night I didn't.  After I waved, two men came in with another big, plush chair and set it beside Nana's chair. I furrowed my brow and wondered what that was there for.

I looked over at Bobbi with a question.  

"Just getting ready." She said. And my heart hurt to hear her voice again. "It's almost time."

Around this time last year I awoke to my sister gently shaking me awake.  The nurses had been in to re-adjust Mom, and Steph thought her breathing sounded weird.  I rose quickly and went in to look.  Mom's breathing was not right.  We agreed that it would probably be a good idea to wake Dad.  He stumbled over and took Mom's hand. I held her other, and was trying to feel a pulse.  I was waiting for her to take another breath.  Her breathing, in medical terms, had been agonal.  Not painful, just long, long breaks between breaths.  I couldn't feel a pulse.  I waited for another breath. As I waited the slow realization of what had just happened started to sink in.  There wouldn't be another breath.  Steph had silent tears.  Dad looked stunned.  Everything slowed down into one horrible moment of realization.  Mom had died. I looked at the clock.  5:59 in the morning.  I called down to the nurses station and asked them to come check her.  Verify what I already knew.  The nurse had a pink stethoscope. I borrowed it after she checked and listened for the familiar thump of a heartbeat. Strained to hear just one more.  Waited.

Thus began a year of firsts.  
First holidays without a mom.  First birthday without a mom.  First spring. First summer. First autumn and first start of winter.  So many bittersweet firsts.  So many thoughts of "Mom would have loved that". And now, in this early morning, a first year completed since my Mom died.

It has been a year of remembering a great many things she did for me.  A year of trying to figure out how to be without a mom. A year of trying to help Dad find his way in this completely new world.  A year of ups and downs, highs and lows, mostly good times but still lots of not so good times.  A time to think that from now until my time comes, all I have left are memories, pictures, videos.  And while it is nice seeing her in videos, I would do almost anything to hear her voice in real life again.

I am so thankful to still have Dad. I know he is grieving, and I know that I cannot know the depths of his grief. But he knows mine. Almost exactly.  He lost his Mom to renal failure when I was in boot camp for the Marines.  He went through everything that I am now going through. Even though I knew then that he was grieving the loss of his mom, I couldn't fully understand it until last year at this time.  Now I recall how he has lived his life since then and I am thankful for such an amazing role model for these days.

Last year on the 26th of December, I heard my mom say her final words to me.  At this time last year, she was gone.

I miss my mom. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Deep Dark Holes

I spent a long summer and lots of the autumn in a deep hole of depression.  Scary deep.  Scary dark.  But I have clawed my way out again.  Without the support of my family, without the assistance of medical professionals, without the time and resources to do so, I probably wouldn't be here anymore.

I invented a new term.  Suicide by apathy.  I didn't really have any drive to do anything.  Even eating, drinking and sleeping left me feeling... Meh. I just didn't care to be living anymore.

But with lots and lots of help and love, and lots of incredibly hard mental work, I am through the tunnel.  I don't ever want to fall back in that hole, but unfortunately, it will probably happen again and again.  Nothing to do but keep doing the work I need to, and keep relying on others for support, which is really, really hard for me.

I like to believe I am self sufficient.  Able to face anything that comes my way.  To a certain extent I am, but I have come to realize that nobody is able to be completely independent.  It is part of the human condition to need other humans.  We are all programmed thusly.

So let me tell you from first hand experience... You are not alone.  It is so very, very hard to ask others for help, but do it if you need it.

It is hard to see out of that deep, dark hole sometimes.  Sometimes it doesn't seem worth it to even try.  

But please try.

Reach out.  You'll be surprised at how many people will be there to help.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fly Away

PTSD sucks.  It sneaks up and takes over, making it hard to function.  When it hits hard I can't do anything. It is hard to get up in the morning. Hard to do anything but sit and stew in my own thoughts.

What really, really stinks though, is reaching a point were I am doing good.  Feeling good. Getting things accomplished. I feel like I am over the whole PTSD thing. Past the crippling depression.

Then it hits again. Bringing to a crashing halt all of the projects I may be working on. I let people down. I let myself down. And it is easy to spiral deeper and deeper without realizing I'm heading down.

Fortunately I have a wonderful wife who can recognize when it's happening. She supports me doing whatever it takes to climb out of that pit.

Well. It hasn't been a very good few weeks. I bottomed out and had a few people pretty worried.

Go do something fun. They said. Even if you can't find enjoyment in it, and even if you usually did get great enjoyment from it, do something. Anything.

So yesterday I did. It was ridiculously hard to gather materials, get things set up to build. This time I used a kit, so everything was already cut, and all I had to do was put it together. I had to force myself to do it.  It sounds stupid, I know. How lazy do you have to be to have something like this be so hard?  And unless you've had severe depression or PTSD or both, it seems like a totally reasonable question.  But I'll tell you something. It is so, stupidly hard to get motivated to do anything!  And if you are like me, you will beat yourself up even more for it being so hard.

But I did it. Powered through an airplane build. Something I usually enjoy.

And, ya know what?  By the middle of the build I was so engrossed in what I was doing, that I started feeling better. I wanted to finish. To get the electronics in (scavenged from another plane). The weather was OK and maybe, if I got it done, I could even take it out for a flight.

By mid afternoon, I had put the last touches on it.  It was ready to fly.  The kids and I headed down to our local farm field to give it a try.

Tossing a plane into the sky for the first time is always nerve wracking.  I just spent hours building and tuning and tinkering. Now, within a few seconds it would either soar into the sky, or spiral in and crash beyond recognition.

Flight controls checked and correct. Throttle up, and give it a throw.

To my great delight, it flew.  I trimmed it out a little, making it easier to fly, and put it through some paces.  High speed, low speed, stalls, rolls, loops, I even cut the power completely and let it glide.  It performed wonderfully.  And as I flew it around the sky, I recognized that I was smiling. Happy.  Enjoying the moment I was in.

My life has become like a maiden flight of new airplanes.  It should go fine. It should just up and fly. But every once and awhile it spirals out of control and crashes.  So far, I've been able to fix it up and try flying again.  But I never can seem to tell when it's going to fly and when it's going to crash.

Someday soon, I hope I can be like the video below. The day may start out shaky, but I will end up flying away.

Enjoy this video of the very first flight of my newly built flying wing

Monday, June 23, 2014

Raptor Fan

I'm a big Raptor fan.

Not that kind of raptor.. (That would be the NBA team the Toronto Raptors for you non-sports fans...)

Actual raptors.. You know, this kind...

Hawks, owls, eagles, even vultures.  I love them all.

I am a volunteer driver for The Raptor Center in the Twin Cities. My job is to go pick up wounded birds and get them to TRC for some TLC.   Many of my transports end up being euthanized, as they are often too injured to save.  That is hard for me, as I have come to be able to tell when I am transporting a bird that probably won't make it.  So I give them as gentle a ride as I can, pray for them and call a few days later to check up on them.

Sometimes, against all odds, they survive.  For this, all credit goes to the hardworking staff of the Raptor Center.  They do amazing things with sick and injured birds.

So, the other day, I got a call to pick up a Great Horned Owl for transport to TRC.  He had already been caught and was in a kennel when I arrived.  I transferred him to a cardboard box to take North.  He was strong, and VERY vocal for the entire trip.

He spent a LOT of time clacking his beak at me, a Great Horned Owl way of telling others how fierce he is, and if I would just stick an errant finger through one of the holes in the box, he would gladly chomp it to demonstrate his ferocity.


I'm pretty sure he will recover. Fingers crossed and prayers sent up.

After I dropped him off, I got to take a Red-Tailed Hawk with me to be released back to the wild.  He was a young hawk, not quite ready to fly, brought in by a concerned and well meaning citizen.  Unfortunately, this meant he had been separated from his mom, so my job was to take him back to as close to the spot he was found as possible.

Fortunately, the route back to his territory passed right by my house, so I was able to stop and pick up the kiddos along the way.  They are learning some compassion for our feathered friends, and how important they are in the food chain and the whole web of life.

As I pulled away from TRC with the hawk, I told him not to worry, that I'd have him back with his mom as soon as I could.  With that, he let out a screech, long and loud and powerful.  It sent a shiver down my spine.  He let out a few more of these, and I spoke back to him in gentle tones.  Soon he was chatting away with me.  Neither of us understanding the other, but having a great road trip none the less.

Because I anthropomorphize, I like to think that the talking helped, as he soon relaxed enough to sit in the box and stare at me through the breathing holes.  He'd give me a few chirps, and I'd respond in English. 

At one point he had been silent for a few minutes, so I asked how he was doing. To my surprise and delight, he answered right back with some contented chirping.

He did most of the talking on the trip. Telling me stories and singing songs.  It was pretty phenomenal.  I recorded some of his antics and put it in a short video.  

Seriously. Listen to that voice.  Takes my breath away every time.

I have been a raptor fan as long as I can remember. But Red-Tailed Hawks are my very favorite.  
I know they are common, everywhere. But they will always be my favorite.  There are things in this world that I cannot explain. Connections that I have with animals of all sorts. Dragonflies on the wing. Buffalo grazing on wide open prairie.  But nothing stirs my soul and makes my heart happy like a red-tail soaring through the sky. I can't explain it. I've stopped trying to explain it to myself.  Every time I get to hold one of these magnificent birds, I am beyond exhilarated.  Being able to feel the heartbeat. I think mine syncs up with it.  And being able to release a healed hawk back into the sky gives me a joy seldom equalled.

I wish I lived closer to the Cities, I'd be volunteering at TRC all the time.  Probably good that I don't though.  My family would miss me.

Ah, Red-Tails.  You soothe my soul.
Freedom Bird
More Later

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why Being Christian Isn't Enough

     How do we make the world a better place? It's a common question amongst people that care.  There are plenty of people infected with greed and vanity. They won't care about anything but themselves, and I'll address them in another post someday.  But there are a multitude of people who care about various issues pertaining to making the world a better place. The trouble that I am having with a great many of these people is their claim that their religion can solve the problems.

     Now, before you get your self-righteous, religious ire up, let's review some stuff.

     I was sitting in on the second of three Easter services this past Sunday, celebrating the risen Lord.  The pews were packed. All three services were heavily attended.  Our church usually has two services on Sundays. One of these Easter services would probably equal a normal attendance at both services on any other Sunday.  That got me to thinking a bit.

     Why do so many more people show up for the "big" services? Christmas...Easter... Holly/Ivy Christians, I've heard them called.

     Well, lots of American Christians lead busy lives. Work the whole week long and don't want to spoil a day of sleeping in with going to church. I get it. I love the days when I get to sleep in, too. And as Christians, we do love the good celebrations of the birth and re-birth of Jesus.  I, for one, believe that God doesn't require church attendance for salvation. I think God is present everywhere, not just at His house.

     But it got me to thinking.  Lot's of people claim to be Christian. Go to some church services. Read some of the bible, and have beliefs that line up somewhat with the Christian doctrine.  Christians, on the whole, aren't bad people. Lots and lots have kind hearts and are caring people. But it seems that we still can't get things done to make the world a better place.  Why?

     I think we have the Holly/Ivy mentality.  We get caught up in our day to day lives. Bills to pay. Kids to shuttle to some practice or another. Dogs to walk. That sort of thing. So even when we have the best of intentions, we fall short on the follow through.  We do the occasional mission trip, or volunteer at an event to help feed hungry kids around the world. Give a little money to church once and awhile when we go. Then we go back to our "ordinary" lives.

     Lately I've been involved with a group out on the Pine Ridge reservation, where the Lakota Oyate (or people) live.  Many, many people out there are just scraping by, living in squalor. Kids going to bed hungry. No jobs, many societal problems. All of the "usual" things you hear or read about impoverished areas.  Re-Member exists to build and repair roofs, build and install beds for children, and sometimes adults, who have never slept in a proper bed. They skirt trailers, saving the residents money on heating during the long, very cold winters.  They build outhouses and dig holes for them at residences without indoor facilities.  In short, they Get Stuff Done that Needs To Be Done.  There is lots of work to do, and their backlog of projects grows from year to year.  Volunteers come out for a week, spend some time on those projects, and some more time on immersion in the Lakota culture to learn about the people they help.

  So what does this have to do with Christians?  Well, consider the mission trips you usually hear about. Youth groups heading somewhere to paint churches, lead bible school, preach the Gospel. Because for some reason, too many Christians believe that if they can convince the people they are helping to follow Jesus, their problems will be over.  The majority of the time, their hearts are in the right place.  But the methods fall short of actual help.

     It is all well and good to travel to Mexico and paint a church every year, but the locals can't all sleep in the freshly painted church.  It's fine to want to "spread the good news" and hand out bibles in Africa, but those locals can't eat bibles.  We somehow feel satisfied to hit "Like" and maybe even "Share" on facebook posts that will claim to feed a child for every click, thinking that we are doing our part for those less fortunate.  We feel more Christian because of these things, because "Good Christians" help those in need. We tithe our 10% to the church, although this number is often closer to 1-2%. But we feel good because we are "doing our part". Right?

     No.  Being Christian isn't enough.  Being religious or spiritual isn't enough.  When it comes to making the world a better place, religion is not a benefit, it is a hindrance.  Too many people use religion as a weapon.

     "You don't believe in my god? No soup for you!"

     Since long before 9/11, there has been hatred between the different religions. Wars fought over whose beliefs were better.  I once believed that modern American Christians were above such things.  But lately I have seen "Christians" cherry picking the bible to fit their views. Almost all of these views are fears of something different. Fear of homosexuals. Fear of Muslims. Fear of black people, or red people, or brown people. Fear of poor people. Fear of Jews. Fear of Liberals. Fear of anyone with a different worldview from themselves.  They use their religion to condemn those that are different. They use their beliefs to justify their behavior towards their own government.  They have closed minds, and closed hearts, yet claim to be Christians.  I don't think their sort of behavior is what Jesus had in mind for us.  I don't remember reading any part of the bible where Jesus said to his disciples to go forth and hate those who are different.

"BUT I'M ONE OF THE GOOD CHRISTIANS!!!" I hear this in my own head from time to time, and I'm sure it may be in your head too.  I respect those who believe other things, even if I don't always agree with them. As long as they don't weaponize their own beliefs, I have no problems.  You too? Great!  But still, we fall short if we just claim our religion as all it takes to help others and make us good people.

As Christians, we believe in the power of prayer. Petitioning God for things. Lot's of other religions pray as well. So what's the problem with prayer, you ask? There are even studies out there that show that prayer does have an influence on things. Don't get me wrong, I've been known to send up some pretty good prayers myself, so I am not railing against prayer.

     But, here's the problem with prayer as a way to make the world a better place.  Without action, it accomplishes very little.  God, we pray that our leaders will make good choices about the environment. We pray that the hungry will be fed. We pray for the sick to be healed. We pray for those living in poverty to have a better life ahead of them.

     I believe that God hears those prayers, but I also believe that God requires some follow up on our end to see that those things happen.  Want your leaders to make good choices about the future of our environment? Write letters. Make phone calls. Let them hear your voices. Want to feed the hungry? Forgo that Starbucks coffee for a day or two, and give that money to a food shelf, or a homeless kitchen, or some other organization that actually feeds the hungry.  Sick? Sure, pray! But go see a doctor. If God created everything, then he created medicine, too. And he created people who understand how to use that medicine, or have the skills as a surgeon to heal you.  Want to help people in poverty have a better life? Go get your hands dirty and help skirt a trailer, or rebuild a roof.  Give your 1-10% to the church, AND give 1-10% to an organization like Re-Member. An organization that actually DOES the work that needs to be done to fulfill those prayers.

     For you bible fearing Christians out there, take the time to read the second sentence of  Luke 12:28 or Matthew 25:40.  Then ask yourself TRULY, what would Jesus do?  What is it YOU are doing to make the world a better place? Holly/Ivy stuff? Or are you ready to get your hands dirty, make even a small financial sacrifice to make the world a better place.  Christians fall short of what it means to really be a Christian. That is why to make the world a better place, being Christian isn't enough.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tanked, Part Deux

Well, after a few weeks of water changes, treatments and learning even more than I have about fish tanks and proper care and feeding, the water became safe for fish again.

This was no small thing, since Blondie, Goldie and Mr. Boney have survived the full ignorance and unimaginable high toxicity levels of the tank thus far.

Tough Guys

So, with some trepidation, I headed out after I dropped the kiddos at school to do a little fish shopping.  

After some deliberation, and talking with the helpful fish experts, I decided against rays and eels, and went with three Mickey Mouse Platy's and a Plecostamus to help keep things clean.

I don't have any good pictures of my little MM's, because they swim so fast. I borrowed this one of the net.

While I was checking out, I noticed a tiny shrimp looking thing swimming around with the pleco. I was told he was a Ghost Shrimp.

Another borrowed shot.  I can't seem to focus on these little transparent bugs.

The pleco died shortly after introduction to the tank, which had me all worried again. So I rushed a water sample off to the fish store again, was assured the water was OK, and got some money back for the poor dead pleco.

So, I started doing some research on Ghost Shrimp... because, of course I did.  Turns out, they are tank cleaner uppers as well.  So I picked up a few more the next day, and took them back to hang out with the little freebie I got.

Remarkably, thankfully, and happily, all of the fish are now doing quite well. The water cycle is doing well, and all of the tankmates seem to be getting along quite well!

One slightly tricky thing that may be needing to be dealt with later is that two of the three Platy's are female.  We've named them Mickey, Minnie and Daisy.  I have a feeling at some point we may have to deal with some little Mickey's and Minnie's.  Of course, they give birth to 40-60 babies at a time, so we could get into some deep, fishy trouble at some point.

Anyway, I'm still loving the tank, as are the kiddos. 

More Later

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rookie Mistakes, or How To Kill Your Fish Without Trying Hard

My father  and my wife chuckle at me for reasearching the heck out of things that interest me.  I bought the Bison Producers Handbook to learn more about buffalo farming. I practically got a doctorate in metalurgy when I started making knives.  And I can tell you more about glass and its properties than a normal human should.

So it came as no surprise to either of them that when we got the fishtank, I was online for a long time doing my homework. How to set up the tank. Best fish for beginners. Behavior patterns for the fish we got. That sort of thing.

But even with all of the learnin', I still made a dumb mistak that cost the lives of six of our fish over the weekend.

Bear, the Variatus died a while ago.  He never did seem quite right.  But, like all good fish owners should, I have been having my water tested every week (FREE at Petco and other pet stores that sell fish!) just to make sure that it is "healthy" water.

Here's a short course. A fishtank is a mini-ecosystem.  Fish poop and uneaten food breaks down into ammonia, which is harmful to the fish.  The ammonia breaks down into nitrites, also harmful to the fish.  Nitrites break down into nitrates over time, posing little risk to the fish.  Thanks to filters and plants, the ammonia and nitrite levels can be kept down in safe quantities.  This whole process is known in the aquarium world as the nitrogen cycle. There is an excellnt explanation of what sorts of filtration is available for tanks and why they are important here.

You know... if you like to learn more than you need to... like me.

Anyway. Last week I took some water to be tested and was told that the ammonia was starting to rise.  Not dangerous, but rising. As to be expected after fish are added to the tank.  But I worried about it, and the guy at the fish store told me that I could buy a little bag of rocks specially treated to absorb ammonia it I wanted to.  Just put it behind the charcoal in the filter and I'd be good to go.

I just needed to know what kind of filter I had.  Which I didn't. So I guessed.  ROOKIE MISTAKE #1. Don't go with a best guess.

The ammonia absorbing rock pouch I got for a little under two bucks ended up not just dropping in behind my charcoal filter.  It was too big.  But the water NEEDED these little rocks! Thought I.  So I cut the bag open and carefully poured them in behind the charcoal filter.  SUCCESS! Thought I. And I promptly forgot about them.

Then came the weekend.  The Tiger Squadron was acting funny.  Always pointing their heads down. Not as zippy as they were before.  I was a little worried, but had read that sometimes when they swam head down like that they were doing a mating dance sorta thing.  But all four?  All the time?  Weird.

The Cherry Barbs also looked a little funny.  Like they had dust on them.  I found nothing about that on the internet. They seemed otherwise just fine. Darting about the tank as usual.  I went to bed on Friday night a little concerned, with thoughts to keep a watch on them.  But the water was fine...right? I JUST had it tested a couple days prior.

In the morning, all of the fish were there. I gave them a little food and noticed that the Tigers were not as hyper about feeding as they had been.

A couple hours later, I noticed that one of the Tigers was stuck against the intake tube of the filter.  This was not good.   Upon closer inspection, he was dead.

Crap. Thought I.

Then I noticed that two of the other tigers were resting dead on the bottom, hidden behind plants.

Crap! Crap! Thought I.

The kiddos were a bit upset, and we had a small funeral and burial at sea for our now departed fish friends. (That involves a few kind words, a salute, and a final flush)

I thought that perhaps I had overfed them, and felt guilty at their passing.  I had given the tank a few freeze dried bloodworms, as from my reading I learned that fish like a little variation in their diet.  Maybe there was something in the bloodworms?

A couple of hours passed, and then I noticed Flashy, the big Cherry Barb, hiding very still behind one of the plants.  Very, very still.


And where was Shiny? The other Cherry Barb?  I couldn't see him anywhere.

I fished out Flashy and we had another fish funeral just before the kiddos went to bed.

After they were tucked in, I went back to the tank to find Shiny.  It came down to me physically moving plants and decor around, and still I did not see him.  It was very puzzling.  I knew he was dead.  The remaining fish were very agitated with me pawing around in the tank. If he were alive, he would have been a swimmin'.

Later that evening as I told my wife about the big kill off, I was searching the tank again and finally found him. Partially hidden beneath some rock.

Another Crap. Another fish funeral.  I went to bed with two Gold Barbs, a Glass Catfish, and the lone survivor Tiger Barb swimming around the tank.

Nobody died on Sunday, and I thought perhaps we were out of the woods.  But when I went to bed that night, the last Tiger was swimming with his head down.

When I woke, the last Tiger had died.

Another fish funeral.  This was getting ridiculous.  As I left to take the kiddos to school, I also took another sample of water to be tested.

This time, the ammonia reading came back as very high, and the nitrite level was the highest the chart could detect.  Somehow in a few days the water had turned toxic!  But how?  I ran through all of the things I had done with the fish guy.  I had added a little water, but it had been sitting out for a few days and should have been fine. I had just changed the charcoal filter when I put the ammonia rocks in. I knew that levels could get wonky during the start up phase of the tank, but in just a few days like that? We were both puzzled. Even the ammonia catching rocks should have helped.

I bought new food, a tank cleaning device for the rocks, and a couple of live plants to help bring the levels down.  The fish guy recommended doing a cleaning and a water change to help bring the levels down as well.  So I raced home to doctor the tank.  After I cleaned the rocks and replaced 20% of the water as recommeded I decided to check the filter again.

I opened the cover and was horrified to find that the ammonia catching rocks had actually blocked all but about 10% of the charcoal filter, and unfiltered water was flowing over a little partition directly back into the tank.

Yep.  That would do it.  ROOKIE MISTAKE #2 - use the products as they are intended until you know what the heck you are doing.

I cleaned out the filter. no more ammonia rocks, and wonder of wonders, the filter has started working properly.  In a day or two I am taking another water sample for testing. As recommended by the fish guy.

I am hoping that Goldie and Blondie and Boney will make it.  Though Goldie has been swimming with his head down today.  Which worries me.

I am hoping I don't make any more dumb mistakes that cost the life of my fish.

I am hoping those little fish can forgive my ignorance when I see them again at the rainbow bridge.

Sorry fish. I really am. I learned a ton from this tragedy, and will not make those mistakes again.

RIP fish friends.

More Later

Monday, January 20, 2014

New Beginnings

The last gift Mom and Dad gave to our family  for Christmas this year was a fish tank.  It was in keeping with the fish theme of Dad's birthday, I think.  Way back in early December when I asked Dad what he wanted for his birthday on the 16th of that month, he said a fish tank with some beautiful Guppies.  When Dad was out of the room once I asked Mom if I could go pick something up from her.

     "A fish tank and Guppies." She answered without hesitation.

Great minds think alike, as we had already bought a tank and were in the process of getting it all set up for his birthday.  So we agreed that the tank would be from Mom and the Guppies from us.  It worked out great, and Dad had a tank of finned friends to watch at the hotel.

Dad's Birthday Fish

We moved Mom down to hospice on the 21st, and in celebrating Christmas while we could, we three Shaffer kids and our respective families were gifted with not just tanks, but supplies to go in them, and even a gift card to stock it with some fish.  In short, everything we would need except the water.

In our family at least, we are so thankful for this final gift from Mom.  We haven't had a fish since Sparkle the Beta died, and have talked about getting a tank on and off since then.  As we were setting it up, getting the water ready to receive fish, placing the rocks and the plants and all things just so, I read up on the care and maintenance of tropical freshwater fish.  It's not really that hard.  A few extra chores every week or three.  Keep them fed. Pretty simple stuff.

Still, before we got the actual fish in the tank, I was thinking about the work behind being a responsible pet owner. More things to learn, more stuff to do.  Maybe I could get the kiddos trained up quickly to do what needed to be done.

Yesterday we were finally ready to go pick out some fish.  I was thinking about Guppies and Danios, since I had read up on those and knew they were good first fish.  Of course the kiddos wanted entirely different fish.  Thankfully these are also pretty hardy fish for newbies.  Hopefully we won't lose too many.  So, let me introduce the newest members of the house of Shaffer North...


Or Bones, as I've been calling him, was the first fish the kids picked out. He is a Glass Catfish, also known as a Ghost cat.  A see through fish.  If there had been more than the one, we would have come home with a tank full.  It seems a little creepy at first. Skeletal fish and all.  But he kind of grows on you after awhile.


So named for the blue and orange of the Chicago football team. Bear is a Blue Fin Variatus, and a shy and mellow one. He feeds at the top while everyone else is fighting for the food that the filter water pushes down into the tank.

Flashy and Shiny

Flashy is the larger of this pair of Cherry Barbs.


Sweet Pea and the Boyo both picked a Gold and a Cherry barb. Goldie is one of the Gold Barbs.


The Other Gold Barb

Tiger Squadron

We have four Tiger Barbs, which we can't really tell apart.  So we call them the Tiger Squadron, or just The Tigers for short... because it sounds cool.

Our new fish friends seem to be adjusting to their new habitat pretty well. They are all around an inch long, except Boney, who is a two inch monster.  They can all double in size though.  We'll see how it goes.  We all have enjoyed sitting around and watching the fish.  It sounds dull, but they really are fun to watch. It reminds me of the hours I spent watching fish for animal behavior classes back in high school, and I can recall some of the things I learned way back then.  But I do love to sit and watch them swim.

Relaxing.  Peaceful.  A reminder that even though Mom is gone from here, life is going on.  It is healing, for me at least, to see the fish swimming, to think of Mom reminding me to "Kick, Kick, Kick!" her way of encouraging me to keep on going.

I miss her a lot.  The fish are a reminder of new beginnings.  Remember the past and enjoy the memories, but don't be so tied to the past that you can't move forward and do new things.  That's the lesson I get from this gift anyway.  I think she would have liked that.

More Later

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Mom died on the 29th of December, early in the morning. 5:51 am.  But let's go back a bit.  Back to Dad's birthday on the 16th.  She moved in to the Samaritan Bethany nursing facility that day, and was feeling pretty crappy.  After all, she had gone back on hemodialysis because her peritoneal dialysis just wasn't able to keep up anymore.  But she kept her spirits up as we celebrated Dad's birthday that night.

The next day she did dialysis again, and changed her code status to DNR/DNI.  She had been talking for a few days about wanting to be done with dialysis, hard conversations for all of us. But she had decided that she wanted to live past Christmas, and had agreed to continue on dialysis long enough so that when the time of her death came, it would not be on Christmas Day.  She did dialysis on the 19th again, but after that was adamant that she was done.

No matter how we argued, pleaded, asked... she was finished with dialysis.  The staff at Samaritan Bethany was wonderful, and made arrangements to transfer her to the Hospice House in Hiawatha.  It was astonishing how easy and quickly everything transpired.

Somehow, my wife worked miracles as well, and was able to pack presents for Christmas, Christmas clothes, funeral clothes, clothes for all temperatures and conditions, all of the trappings a family of four would need for an undefined period of time. Meanwhile I packed up Mom and everything she had with her and got her all ready to go.

Dad had left the day before to see my nephew Harrison in an improv show down in Cedar Rapids.  Mom didn't want him to drive back up to Rochester just to turn around and drive back.  His heart was breaking, and rightfully so.

So on the 20th, in two vehicles, my family of four along with my Mom headed south on her last road trip.
The drive was OK. Mom was in good spirits for awhile, and we talked about what she wanted for her funeral, songs and verses and things.  Mostly we rode in silence.  Everything that I had wanted to say I had said long before. She was at peace with her decision.

We arrived at the Hospice House where Dad and Steph were waiting to greet us.  It is a great facility for its purpose, and the staff is amazing. Kind and compassionate. They really went above and beyond in caring not only for Mom, but for the rest of the family as well.

My little foursome moved in to Mom and Dad's house, just a mile or two from the Hospice House.

The next few days went pretty well.  Carolers came to sing, she had every whim indulged, and at the end of each day she would say how wonderful and perfect the day had been.

She was comfortable, had a decent appetite, we brought her Zoey's - a favorite pizza. And little smokies - a favorite breakfast, though nobody will make them as good as Mom again.

Starting on the 24th, I spent the nights there as well, as one of her wishes was to be surrounded by loved ones when she passed and not be alone.  We had done a "rolling Chrstmas" by opening presents starting on the 23rd.  When she was awake and lucid we'd party. When she slept, we'd wait. By the 25th, she was in and out all day. Pretty lucid sometimes. Still at peace with her choice.

On TV there were Christmasy movies playing, people celebrating, gearing up for the New Year. In blogs and on Facebook, well-wishers and happy thoughts were abounding.  My little family of four put our usual traditions on hold, and while the kiddos were disappointed, it was the right thing to do. I spent Christmas Eve with Mom and Dad. The last I could. It sucked, and it was beautiful.  Around midnight I peeked in to see both my parents asleep.  Dad had a couch that folded out into a bed of sorts, and was fast asleep.  Mom was lying on her back, snoring gently.  All over people were falling asleep happy and anticipating the coming Christmas Day.  I was anticipating it for an entirely different reason.

The visitors came out of the woodwork.  Mom had a regular flood of people coming and going, and when she was awake greeted them all with smiles and reassurance.  My sister was there almost all day, every day until the 27th. Then she stayed overnight as well, and we shared shifts overnight so that everyone could get some sleep.  She even let me sleep an extra couple of hours that first night, which was a gift beyond description.

By the 26th, Mom was sleeping all the time. She did come around a bit a couple of times on the 26th. She also had a really bad spell around 10 pm where we thought she was going. A shot of morphine calmed her and got her breathing regularly again. It was a scare for all of us present, but I think prepared us for what was to come. Otherwise it was just a vigil from that point on.  Checking vitals, watching, waiting.  It was miserable.

My brother Jason arrived on the 27th along with his son Alex.  This completed Mom's goal of having the original five of us in the same place at the same time.

Dad took the first shift on the night of the 28th, as he was feeling pretty awake.  He woke Steph around 2am.  At about quarter to six, she woke me and asked if I'd check on Mom as her breathing had changed again.

When I saw her I knew instantly that she was doing agonal breathing, her last breathing. Steph thought we should maybe wake up Dad.  I initially said no, but knew it wouldn't be long.  She got him up and to her side, and I called down to the nurses to ask them to come and check on Mom.  By the time the nurse arrived, she was gone.

We  held her hands and watched her last breath. I was able to listen and couldn't hear any heartbeats. I sat with the stethoscope, wishing to hear just one more.  It was surreal.  She looked very peaceful. Just as if she were asleep.  I kept watching.  Expecting to see her chest rise one or two more times.  But nothing.  I was numb. As she had wanted, she did not pass alone.  Steph, Dad and I bore witness to her death.

We started calling people to let them know. I honestly don't remember who I called or what I said.  I know I called my wife first. Everything else from that morning is blurred together. People came.  There were hugs and tears.  The staff was great with us. The funeral home guy came to collect the body, and I helped them get her onto the cot and was able to zip her into it. Her stuff was collected and taken back to their house.  I slept. I woke. I slept some more.  Dad slept.  I don't know how he functioned at all.

My wife handled me quite well.  Making sure I ate and drank fluids. Keeping track of the small details of kids and life as I worked with Mom on her death.

My best friend Matt Russell and his fiance Jeanne were invaluable during the entire process.  Bringing food, entertaining the kiddos, taking me shopping on Christmas Eve for last minute presents to keep the kiddos occupied. Playing games with us and spending time with us and helping us throughout the whole ordeal.

The funeral was planned for the following Friday, January 4th, with a visitation the day before. Mom wanted to be cremated, an so arrangements were made for all of that.  In the middle of this crappy week came the new year.  We didn't ring it in with any celebrating.  My sister and her family gamely did some of their traditions, but it was shadowed by the loss of Mom and the absence of Dad, who stayed home with us and went to bed early.

The visitation was as nice as a visitation could be.  I got to see lots of friends and family that I otherwise would not have, and after awhile it was reminiscent of the old days at the Shaffer Hotel, with groups of friends catching up on events and lives. Steph had arranged for Mom's memory books to be laid out all over, so we had lots of memories to sift through between meeting and talking.  Eventually we closed the place down, saying goodnight to mom one final time.

The funeral was a blur.  Per Mom's wishes there was much music, and much of that upbeat.  The praise band that my sister sings in and that Mom loved provided most of the tunes.  Mom's favorites.  Jason sang Evening Prayer, and I struggled through a version of With You, a song I last played at their 40th wedding anniversary eight years ago. Many words were spoken, mostly eloquent.  Mom would have loved that service, too.

There was a meal after and more talking and reminiscing.  Around 2 pm, Matt, Steph and I headed back to the funeral home to observe the beginning of the cremation process.  It seemed appropriate to me somehow that someone should bear witness to it.

There was a small gathering on Monday to put the urn into the place we had chosen for her.  Inside the mausoleum in space F-14. There will be space there for Dad when his time comes. Steph and Harrison were there, as well as my four, and Dad.  We set the urn in, resting on a swatch of Wallace Plaid, our family tartan. Next to it an angel bell.

And that was it.  The end of a long process. Going from the decision to come off dialysis to walking out of the mausoleum.  The end of this chapter, but the beginning of the next chapter, wherein we go on with life without Mom.

Her three children heading back to their families. Dad sorting through all of her stuff and figuring out what to do with it.  All of us grieving in our own way.

I miss my mom.