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.