When I’m 54

Though I don’t care much about the transition to a new year, I was perfectly happy to put the 2010s behind me — a decade marked by the death of both of my parents, and the hardest of my caregiving years with Mom. In 2020, I thought, I could focus on looking forward rather than getting hung up on past sad events.

And then I got sick, on Jan. 2. And I couldn’t talk to Dad about it. Even as a middle-aged adult, I want to talk to Dad when I don’t feel good. That’s just how it has always been. In my case, having a physician for a Dad has meant talking to him about all kinds of ailments, whether they’re related to his specialty or not.

My sister Laura talking to Dad during our summer vacation in 2018. I believe they had some discussions about health, too.

What started as a cold morphed into an ear infection and then, after 10 days of antibiotics, I had an apparent recurrence of viral symptoms that still bother me somewhat to this day, more than four weeks since it all began. And I feel very sorry for myself. Missing Dad does not help.

I don’t know that I would have called Dad about this particular bout with bacteria. But I put something on Facebook about taking antibiotics; Dad, a daily Facebook user, would undoubtedly have checked in on my timeline to see how I was doing. And then probably would have again a few days later. (I am confident this would be the case because Dad makes frequent appearances in my Facebook memories, which is both wonderful and heartbreaking.) Being sick has also meant for most of my adult life that I should stay away from Dad because, because he was a transplant patient, his immune system was suppressed. He spent one whole winter several years back fighting what he suspected was whooping cough. So minimizing his exposure to germs was important.

This has evoked many childhood memories of my various illnesses and accidents. Poor Dad was called in for doctor duty even though we didn’t live with him after my parents divorced. When I was very young and fell on my face in a neighbor’s driveway, he took me to University Hospital at Ohio State to get stitches in my forehead. When the wound had healed, he came over to remove my stitches as I lay draped across his lap in a chair. I was squirmy and did not make it easy for him. He visited when I got chickenpox, and he identified the reason my throat was so sore, which was an abnormal symptom: I had a chickenpox blister on my uvula.

I had multiple cases of tonsillitis as a kid, and as a result my tonsils are enormous. I wanted to have them removed but Dad said no. “They’re there for a reason.”

In eighth grade, I had an astounding total-body case of poison ivy. To this day, I don’t know how I got it, but my body responded as if I had rolled in it. My face was in full crust mode by the time Dad came by to examine me. “You look like the Incredible Hulk,” he said. I cried, being an unrecognizable 13-year-old girl who itched from head to toe, and was therefore very sensitive. He took me to a dermatologist colleague’s house after work on that occasion, and we left with a prescription for a tapered dose of steroids that cleared me up quickly.

I have small veins like Dad did, so blood draws can be complicated. In high school, I helped organize a blood drive. Near its conclusion, I sat down to make my first blood donation. The Red Cross staff could not find a good vein — though not for lack of trying, by poking me in the arm repeatedly. I was embarrassed, sore and upset, and that failure was so memorable that I have never tried since to give blood. I got mono later that year. Dad took me to the hospital to confirm the diagnosis, and I told the phlebotomist she’d have a hard time drawing my blood. She rolled her eyes and got the sample she needed on the first try. I’ve always been thankful to Dad for taking me to her.

Most recently, in 2018, he talked to Patrick and me through our cases of influenza — my mild case, thanks to my annual flu shot, and Patrick’s lengthier case that involved taking Tamiflu. And Dad, a gastroenterologist, was the obvious go-to when Patrick had diverticulitis. They had a couple of marathon phone sessions talking about symptoms and treatment options.

As I blogged about Mom, I was often frustrated that I didn’t have very strong memories of my day-to-day life growing up, and that many of my memories related to negative events. Similarly, memories of my weekly visits, along with Jeff and Laura, with Dad after our parents divorced are not vivid. But the memories I do have about my encounters with him during my childhood are much more likely to be positive, even if they revolved around being sick. My guess is the value of having his attention increased dramatically after he no longer lived with us. In fact, I have no memories of our family life — or of any part of my life — before he moved out, save for a select few isolated events — like how my neighbor friends made fun of me for walking around shirtless when I was about 4, trying to be like a boy.

I should have known that the start of a new decade wouldn’t make one bit of difference in how I think about my life. The past is important — especially as I age and try to draw on lessons I’ve learned, or remind myself of problems I have solved, or take pride in what I’ve accomplished personally and professionally. And, most important of all, as I remember my parents, and others, who are gone, with the benefit of wisdom and gratitude that comes with the passage of time.

Resolution in memoriam

The most important vote taken today by Ohio State’s Board of Trustees, in my humble opinion, was approval of the resolution in memoriam honoring my dad. I’ve pasted the text in below – the pdf is hard to read.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 12.34.51 PM

 

Synopsis: The Board of Trustees of The Ohio State University expresses its sorrow regarding the death on June 5, 2019, of James H. Caldwell, MD, Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine in the College of Medicine.

Professor James Caldwell did his undergraduate and medical school training at The Ohio State University, receiving his MD and acceptance into the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society in 1963. He completed his internship in Medicine at the University of Chicago Hospitals only to return to The Ohio State University College of Medicine to serve as a junior assistant resident in Medicine from 1964-65. His residency training was interrupted by a call to service in the United States Air Force, where he served as a Captain from 1965-67. Dr. Caldwell then completed his residency in Medicine at The Ohio State University Hospitals, as well as a fellowship in Gastroenterology. He joined the Ohio State faculty upon completion of his fellowship in 1970, and rose in the ranks to full professor in 1981.

His numerous accomplishments in medical research and education endeared him to his peers and trainees. During his tenure at Ohio State, Dr. Caldwell served as an investigator with the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and was the associate director of the Independent Study Program from 1994 to 2001. He was nationally recognized as a leader in the study of intestinal digitalis glycoside transport, as well as eosinophilic gastroenteritis, and was awarded multiple extramural grants in relation to this field of study. He also received numerous honors and awards for his teaching contributions to the College of Medicine. Most notably, he received the Outstanding Teacher Award for the Problem-Based Learning Program in 1992, and participated in both national and local post-graduate courses.

Dr. Caldwell was on staff as a highly respected academician, researcher and clinician for 38 years. He was an outstanding role model for medical students, trainees and his peers, and he brought a humanistic approach to medicine. He received a heart transplant in 1994 and continued to work until his retirement in 2008. During his recovery from his heart transplant, he found solace in gardening. Through the help of OSU Extension, he became a Master Gardner and continued his training in life.

He was a truly wonderful person, physician and scholar, and he was first and foremost dedicated to his family. He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Dr. Patricia Caldwell, a physician in her own right who was also his colleague. She retired from Ohio State’s Division of Cardiology in 2009, and continues to hold an appointment as Professor Emeritus.

On behalf of the university community, the Board of Trustees expresses to the family of Professor James Caldwell its deepest sympathy and sense of understanding of their loss. It is directed that this resolution be inscribed upon the minutes of the Board of Trustees and that a copy be tendered to his family as an expression of the board’s heartfelt sympathy.

Poetry

At Dad’s memorial service, my sister Laura read a poem she had written in February 1994. By this time, Dad had been hospitalized for several months, waiting for a donor heart. And my niece Julia, Laura’s daughter, selected a poem to read for the service. I have been meaning to share them here for some time.

THE WAITING
by Laura Caldwell

Everywhere I look I see your heart.
It’s pulsating on the stove in the meat sauce
marinating with sugar and cumin to fill
my children’s plates and stomachs.
And woven into a wool muffler it
circles my daughter before it shapes
my lips as they kiss the rose on her cheeks.
Imprinted in the gauze of a band-aid
stuck to my skin, it continues to
dress subtle abrasions and inflamed wounds.
So solidly are your arteries built
into the bricks of my mantel, I cannot imagine
that blinking embers could still.
If only I could collect all of these
hearts, graft them into a valentine and
deliver them to your sterilized room,
Maybe then your new heart would come.

Written February 14, 1994. Dad received his heart 10 days later, on Feb. 24, 1994.



TRAIN RIDE
by Ruth Stone

All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year’s leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite,
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled truck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.

from In the Next Galaxy © Copper Canyon Press, 2002 

 

Eulogy: Two hearts

At long last, I am publishing the eulogy Patrick wrote for Dad’s memorial service, which was held on Monday, June 10, 2019.

IMG_0077

On display during calling hours and the celebration of Dad’s life: Pat made the quilt as a gift for Dad’s 75th birthday. The family photo was taken during a Caldwell family vacation at Bald Head Island several summers ago. The piece at right was a gift to Dad upon his retirement from Ohio State’s medical center. The cane lying across the front of the stand was made for Dad by a grateful patient.

We Caldwells didn’t trust ourselves to get through a eulogy, so Patrick was recruited. He labored over it for hours and hours with just a few days to prepare. After the service, a friend asked me if I had written it, because I am a writer. But no, this comes straight from Patrick’s heart and mind and affection for Dad. And we thought it was perfect.

Two Hearts

I’m here to try to tell a story. This is my story.

We are here to remember and honor James Hudson Caldwell, MD. He was born March 27, 1939, in Bellaire, Ohio. His parents were Robert M. and Goldie Caldwell. He has a brother, Bob.

He graduated from Shadyside High School and earned his undergrad and medical degree at THE Ohio State University. He skipped grades between elementary and high school and he completed his undergraduate degree in 3 years. He was a gastroenterologist at The Ohio State University Medical Center.

In Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 22, 1956, Colo the gorilla became the world’s first gorilla born in a zoo setting…

That’s quite a transition.

In the early 1970s, Colo was having GI issues. A call for help and James Caldwell came to the rescue — imagine a shirt with a colon shaped into an S.

Colo was the first gorilla born in captivity and Dr. James Caldwell was the first physician to perform a GI procedure on a gorilla — in Columbus, Ohio, U.S., North America, the world, etc.

Emily remembers that the procedure occurred in the grass: Colo, Dad, and a zookeeper. As the anesthesia began to wear off, Colo gave a little squeeze of Dad’s arm. OK, I THINK IT IS TIME TO END THIS PROCEDURE.

Although he was accomplished academically and professionally, this man saved the life of a gorilla!

He shared with me that one of his greatest regrets was not making the Ohio State University Marching Band as an undergrad. His gait made it difficult for him to march, so he didn’t make the cut.

I’m somewhat surprised that this incident did not lead him to study orthopedics for a few years, just for the fun of it.

He served in the U.S. Air Force in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was a longtime model train enthusiast.

I also grew up in a small town that had a rail line running through it. So I grew up, possibly like Dad: Windows open in the summer. I would hear, late at night, the sound of the train, coming from somewhere, but also moving on.

That sound, for me, will always take me to that time. The sounds of trains are evocative for me.

Jim was, however, the practical environmentalist: trains and light rail can be an efficient and carbon-neutral form of mass transportation. But he also dreamt of the Caldwell Memorial Monorail that would connect campus and downtown.

I think trains also took him back…

He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, and father-in-law.

For those of you who did not know me in the 1980s or 1990s, I used to have hair…a lot of hair. In 1988, when I first met Dad — Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Bozo the Clown. I wanted to be Marx. I knew I would never be Einstein. But I think Jim — Dad — probably thought BOZO. And looking back, I can’t disagree.

After college, Emily and I spent some time apart. Emily went to Maine to work as a journalist. She covered George Bush Sr. in Kennebunkport, Maine. (I think her work on the “recycle-gate” controversy led to Bush Sr. being only a one-term president. Ask her about it.)

I went to Kentucky for grad school to study sociology.  The sociology department once gave me an award for having the hair that was most similar to Bart Simpson’s hair. I was still struggling.

Then in early 1994, two hearts began the process of bringing Emily and me back together. They were not our hearts. Jim had a heart transplant. My dad, a quadruple bypass and valve replacement.

We reconnected over our fathers’ hearts.

Later in 1994, Emily and I  got engaged. I’m certain that I spent time with Dad and Pat before our wedding in 1995, but it was at our wedding that I knew Jim loved me.

While Dad was a conversationalist, in 1995, he could be a bit circumspect when it came to verbally expressing emotion. So he expressed his emotions through his actions.

I was crying a bit during our wedding, and couldn’t get to a tissue or handkerchief. I think this touched Jim.

We were married in a barn, on a little stand in the middle. Families facing each other…the Hatfields and Corleones.

When I came off of the stand, he caught me and held me. I will always remember that hug and the love I felt in that moment.

From then on, I was lucky enough to have a second father in Jim.

I had a dad in Ohio in addition to my dad who ended up living in that state up north (O-H…) [Yes, attendees responded with I-O.]

I think Dad appreciates that response.

My mom still roots for the Bucks.

Dad was a Master Gardener.
Dad enjoyed a good meal.
Fish Fest became a Christmas Eve tradition.

At the end of the Fish Fest, at the end of any meal or any visit, we would say it was time to leave, and never go. Dad would start another story or continue with the story he was telling.

We always had more to say, more stories to share. We just wanted to spend a few extra moments together. Even when it was time to go, we wanted to hear one more story.

Dad was born in a small Ohio town.
He loved trains.
He helped save the life of a gorilla and the lives of actual people.
He loved gardening and the environment.
He was always on the lookout for a new restaurant and a good meal.
He gave a great hug.
He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, friend.

He will always be with us when we tell our stories of him.

 

Dad’s heart

Dad BHIA girl can get greedy, and become disillusioned, when her dad has a heart transplant in 1994 and is still around to celebrate his heart day every Feb. 24 for 25 years. And then celebrates his 80th birthday. I considered 2019 a good year for my dad, James H. Caldwell, MD. His birthday was on a Wednesday in March, so we planned to whoop it up in his honor in July at Bald Head Island, our beloved Caldwell family vacation spot. We will still observe that birthday and celebrate his remarkable life in late July. His seat will be empty, but he will be with us.

Dad died at around 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, at Ohio State’s Ross Heart Hospital. He had been hospitalized for 10 days for what began as a GI bleed. Multiple tests failed to identify the source of the bleed, and it eventually stopped after he was taken off his blood thinner. He experienced a slowed heart rate during one test, leading to some electrophysiology testing and procedures. His last procedure, to check for clots in his atrium (no clots found), was successfully completed Wednesday afternoon. He’d be in for observation for two days and home by the weekend. And then, disaster struck, in what we assume was a pulmonary embolism, or perhaps a massive heart attack.

Being in the hospital meant Dad was missing valuable late spring outdoor time. A lover of gardening for as long as I’ve been alive, he became a Master Gardener through OSU Extension over the many months of his recovery after his heart transplant. The house he and his wife Pat have lived in since 1991 has an enormous yard with room for vast perennial beds and a sizable vegetable garden — one of its major selling points. Poor Dad could never convince me to love gardening. I like the cosmetic and culinary results but I hate the work. But he had tomatoes and peppers that were ready for planting, pronto, and I was tasked with getting that done. I took it seriously, following his instructions and the layout he had drawn on a scrap piece of paper. “Lord help me if they don’t thrive,” I joked in a text to my siblings.

I enjoyed sending text updates over the past week to my brothers and sisters, who live in Seattle, Iowa, Grand Rapids, Cleveland and Brooklyn. The news about his health was always pretty good. Dad lost his temper one day with the medical staff because he was frustrated with the poor communication among the various teams working on his care – two different heart services and the GI service. His spirited response conveyed he had energy, an improvement over his weakness from anemia when he entered the hospital. And yet, for a long time he was what I describe as fragile, physically. Immunosuppression drugs take a toll on the human body, and he had osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, stress fractures, muscle detachments, renal failure and I don’t even know what else. He had a bad infection last summer that set him back further, but, as a very compliant physical therapy patient, he rebounded nicely.

With Mom, whose death I anticipated for 10 years, I found myself surprised about how devastatingly sad I was when she died, considering I wanted her suffering to end. Dad has been fragile for many years, but was always fine with minimizing acknowledgment of his physical limits. So all of our conversations at the hospital over the past 10 days were characterized by an expectation that he would go home, take some time to regain strength, get back to the garden and ride in the car with me and Patrick for the trip to Bald Head Island. And so, his death was unexpected. And of course, I am devastatingly sad, while I am also so grateful that he lived as long as he did.

Dad was a master diagnostician, an educator, an intellectual, a conversationalist and storyteller, a lover of classical music, a foodie, an avid consumer of news and information, and, since the early 2000s, a progressive political activist. He and Pat were devoted to each other, and spent very little time apart over the course of their long marriage. And he leaves a legacy in his kids who, along with our families, are smart, talented — musicians, writers, poets, scholars (we all have postsecondary educations) — thoughtful, temperamental, driven by conviction, funny and a little bit (or a lot) cynical, and, like Dad, have a healthy appetite for delicious food and all of the joys, big and small, that life has to offer.

Guest post

Caregiving blogs are, themselves, terminal in nature. So far, I have not opted often to write here instead about grief or some other kind of remembrance. My friend Misti Crane did not know Bonnie, but she knows mourning the loss of a mother and she knows writing. She published the below post on Medium, and I asked if I could include it as a Momsbrain guest post. I’m so glad she said yes.

On perfume and permanence

How Mom is still with me after 7 years

 

Sibs in the City

And just like that, three years have passed since Mom died. Oct. 27 was the anniversary of her death.

Earlier this month, Laura, Jeff and I spent a weekend together in New York to celebrate Mom. The year she died, we got together shortly after her funeral for a November weekend in New York, where Jeff and Laura lived at the time. We decided then that we would gather each fall for a weekend in memory of Mom. I call it Sibs in the City. And we have kept that promise to ourselves.

Below is a photo of us having drinks at the Whitby Hotel in New York on Oct. 6 after seeing a matinee of a terrific play. Our annual agenda would be roughly the same if Mom were along for the trip: some moderately fine dining, but nothing too fancy; a Broadway show – or two, or three; a little shopping; a museum exhibit if we can fit it in; blocks and blocks of walking; and time for a midday nap.

It is something positive associated with losing our mom.

We texted each other on Saturday (Oct. 27), Jeff first.

Jeff: Happy Mom day. Thinking of you two.
Me: Same to you. Will be writing a blog post. Love you.
Laura: Love to you both. You and Mom have been on my mind today.

Mourning the loss of a parent is an unpredictable experience, and we all grieve in our own way. I’m grateful, though, that the three of us have elected to lean into the shared experience, so at least sometimes, we don’t have to do it alone.

Suppression impossible

Why was I breathlessly anxious while walking my dogs this morning?

Why did a bag of spoiled cauliflower in the fridge make me so mad?

Why can’t I recall a single bit of the funny podcast I streamed in the car on the way to work?

Why do I feel that mild sting of potential tears in my eyes?

Hello, heartburn.

Oh, yes. I guess I’m trying to trick myself into forgetting. Today is Mom’s birthday. She would be 81.

Happy birthday, dear Bonnie.

DSCN0201

Mom blowing out candles on her birthday cupcakes in June 2009 at a little party Patrick and I threw for her at the Park of Roses. This was just two months before she transitioned from assisted living to the Alzheimer Care Center. She looks so good.

Bonnie was here

Since Mom died, I’ve wondered if she might visit me in my dreams, and I’ve hoped that I would sense her presence during sleep or waking hours – either way would be fine. And yet, these wishes conflict with my belief system about death – or at least my expectations about my own death. I think of it as eternal rest, in a comforting way, and as the end of suffering for those who are sick. I like the idea of continued spiritual activity and am open to that existing, but I like evidence, too. So I struggle to reconcile the difference between what I think makes the most sense and what I would like to be true.

A novel I just finished has heightened my interest in having a visit with Mom. It’s a story about a family coping with the death of a young boy, told from multiple points of view – the dead boy, his sister, his parents and his aunt, and even the family dog. The boy is fixated on getting a message to his family to help reduce their suffering. They sense his presence in the house and in their dreams. It’s just a piece of fiction, and it interested me because of its focus on grief. But I found myself wondering each night as I turned off my Kindle if tonight would be the night that I’d see Mom in a dream. And I was consistently disappointed. Until last night.

Now, the brain is still largely a mystery to scientists, and we may never have a firm grasp on what the brain is doing during our dreams. But what we think we know is that dreams are, at least in part, an important function for processing information and sorting memories. They are all about us – not about some spirit out there that wants to penetrate our thoughts. So even as I say I want Mom to visit me in my dreams, what I mean, I suppose, is that I want to be able to remember the Mom of 15 or more years ago in whatever way I can. Dreams might be my best opportunity.

Last night, I had an anxiety dream. This is not unusual. I still frequently dream that I am in graduate school and the term is nearing its end, and rather than completing papers or taking exams, I blow off all of my final projects. Those dreams typically end with me standing in line to pick up a transcript – without ever seeing my grades. But last night, I fretted through a dream during which I was desperately trying to book a flight from New York to home, or from Columbus to New York. My brother Jeff and sister Laura had roles: Jeff gave me subway instructions and Laura had an apartment in New York. But mostly, I remember a solo pursuit of searching for flights, roaming through airports and never reaching my destination. And Mom was there. She didn’t do anything or say anything. She was basically inconsequential to the running story of the dream. But she was there, and something about the urgent need to travel related to her.

I’ve never seriously tried to interpret my dreams, but Mom did. I’ve come across notebooks that she kept at her bedside, and I suspect I will find more as I go through her things. I have a theory, though, about what might be going on in my mind. The new year has inspired Patrick to begin going through boxes in the basement, sorting items to keep, recycle, send to family members or throw away. I asked him to leave the boxes of Mom’s things for me to go through, while at the same time declaring that I am not inclined to do that just now. So I feel guilty about foiling his plans to organize the basement and simultaneously intensely curious about what I will find among Mom’s things. There’s really no excuse to keep avoiding the task. I just have to be ready for the emotions. Maybe Mom showed up in my dream to tell me it will be OK.

Anniversary

I didn’t think about this being the two-year anniversary of Mom’s death until about 9:05 a.m. today, when I was in a meeting. That makes me feel guilty, because how could that not be the first thing I think about when I wake up on Oct. 27? But also, given that this 10-day-or-so stretch of October will always be a reminder of Mom’s final days, I guess there is something to be said for the mind’s ability to wander away from a painful past, if only for a few hours.

I will raise a glass in Mom’s memory this evening, and, I’m sure, keep her in my thoughts for the rest of today. Feeling wistful, but not broken. At least for today.

%d bloggers like this: