The Windows Need Cleaning

It’s early April and right now the sun is pouring through the living room windows getting ready to slide behind the houses across the street. The sky is crystalline blue. After a long walk earlier this afternoon the dog is lying beside me sleeping and I notice that the windows have an annoying film on them that needs to be cleaned off. It’s time to wash the windows, to let more light in, to prepare for spring. It’s part of a cycle and I know I’ll be busy soon enough preparing the house and yard for warmer, longer, more inviting days. I will want to have the outside inside and the inside out. Gardens will be built and tended to and plants will be repotted and moved. But right now I have the innate urge to simply rest and stay hunkered down despite the fact that it’s spring. I’ve had no desire to write, to share my life with others. I have been dormant for too long now.


A late season blanketing

Perhaps some of this malaise is seasonal, the lingering of winter, the slowness of the arrival of spring. I’m still in the mood for some hibernation, conserving my energy, staying warm and safe and secure. Recharging. That’s a big part of it, yes. And being seasonal I know it will pass. The days are already getting longer, it’s lighter later. Twenty inches of snow late in the season stalled the advancement of spring, blanketing the early signs for a few weeks. The snowdrops in a neighbor’s lawn survived and are flourishing again, the upper branches of the willow trees continue to flush and brighten in their yellowness as this snow melts and the groundwater once again pulses up through the xylem. The buds on the red maples are resuming their swelling and will soon drop their pollen and spent flowers as the days lengthen and the temperature inches higher.


Red Maple buds

All winter long I have felt no spark, no stroke of inspiration. What could possibly provide the needed stimulation to write something of interest after chucking everything and living in Thailand for a year and a half, and then spending seven months watching your father die? Every thought seems banal, every idea uninteresting.

It’s not quite as if I haven’t been living and experiencing life such that there’s nothing to say, but really in the back of my mind that’s exactly what I’m thinking. A lot has happened since leaving the Peace Corps. I’ve written about the “father chapter” but not about adjusting to life back here, buying a house, decorating and occupying that house, getting my second heartbeat—my dog—back from his foster family. There are stories in these but none of them have provided me with the provocation or fillip I need to shine a light on them or explore their deeper meaning. There has been no jot of newness, no seed of creativity, no grain of irritation that I want to put into words and share. My Muses have been silent.


My Tatter is back.

Perhaps some of this absence of motivation and inspiration has been due to depression and grief. More than likely. The last two years were a bit over-stimulating and bam, now it’s gone, I’m left settling into a routine and a true retirement. My concentration these past few months has been bodiless. I pore over the newspaper in the morning and am uneasily comforted by the fact that the world hasn’t imploded overnight despite the assaults on human rights, environmental protections, justice and truth. I spend time on my laptop but mostly scrolling through Facebook feeds and signing resistance petitions, not writing, not being creative.  I spend time doing crosswords and reading.  Most days I mainly have the desire to sit with the dog in my lap, close my eyes and have my mind go blank.  One good habit I’ve begun is spending 45 minutes each morning on the treadmill and working up a really good sweat. The biggest struggle is finding the right music to energize me and get my feet moving to the beat, to make the workout less onerous than my body is telling me it is. For goodness sake I’m listening to someone called Pitbull, and I’m liking it. There’s a germ of a story in that but it’s weak and hasn’t jumped the circuitry from the left frontal lobe to the right and down to the heart, let alone all the way to the fingers.

The spring cycle will warm me physically and emotionally. Energy and motivation will rise through me once again like water through a tree and I’ll be back on track. I’ll start by washing the windows, breathing in the spring air—and the subsequent pollen and leaf mold—filling my lungs with renewal and hope and a few irritating allergens. Life will continue.


There’s a tulip in there.

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The doctors needed to consult amongst themselves. Hospice needed to weigh in and review my father’s needs and abilities. It wasn’t until the Friday before New Year’s that papers were signed and a schedule for service was agreed upon, a week after we had admitted we needed help. Hospice would begin their caregiving the following Monday, the day after New Year’s.

My father was ensconced, entrenched, enshrined, entombed on the living room couch, his favorite nesting place for the past few months and after hospice’s home visit he tried to get up to walk to the bathroom. He couldn’t stand. He called Joyce. Together they struggled to traverse the twenty-five feet from couch to throne. It took almost an hour. That evening Joyce’s daughter-in-law, Denise, a nurse, told them in no uncertain terms that he could no longer stay on the couch and needed to be in bed, to stay in bed and not try to move about the house. Joyce’s grandsons were enlisted to help move my father into the spare bedroom.

That Friday night and the following day his decline was rapid. The passing of 2016 into 2017 went unnoticed. Dad’s medicines were stopped and he was introduced to morphine. He slipped into a coma before I arrived home the day after New Year’s. As I walked through the front door hospice was just leaving, their first and only visit. Dad’s blue-gray eyes were open, the left one more so than the right. They looked ahead blankly, registering neither emotion nor recognition. He was unresponsive. A kitchen chair was sitting on one side of the bed, a portable commode on the other. An oxygen compressor was adding additional heat to the already stuffy room while its clear plastic tubes were providing scant capital for his overworked lungs. His mouth was open slightly, his dentures removed, his tongue jutting out a bit. A deposit of thick pink sputum was welling up and down around his tongue when he breathed. It sounded like he was snoring, but snoring underwater. This was the death rattle, the gurgling, burbling noise from the throat. It was the noise a snoring, drowning, dying man makes. Dad had pulmonary edema and bronchial secretions had been filling the tiny sacs in his lungs. That, mixed with saliva and blood, was filling his throat and trying to find an outlet up and out through his mouth. Denise was using a turkey baster to remove the fluid build up from his mouth and inside his throat. I asked why he wasn’t gagging when she inserted the plastic tube so deep to suction out the mucus. She said that the part of his brain controlling his gag reflex had shut down, that he could no longer feel the sensation and his body could no longer respond. He had also lost his ability to cough or swallow to expel the viscous fluid.

I helped Denise reposition Dad on the bed, bracing him onto his side while she applied a large bandage to one of the growing bedsores on his buttocks. We gently rolled him and wedged a pillow under his frame to relieve the pressure on that side. We tugged at the absorbent pad placed beneath him (other bodily functions had shut down), moving him up toward the headboard allowing his feet to firmly rest on the mattress. (A trait I share with my father, we don’t fit easily on standard mattresses.) Joyce and I took shifts donning latex gloves and using tissues to wipe the sputum from the corner of his mouth before it could trail down his chin. Joyce was praying to God to take her husband, to put an end to his suffering, our suffering. I was feeling claustrophobic, the closeness, the warmth, the stale air, the puffing oxygen, the gurgled breathing, the impending. I told Joyce to take a much needed break and spend time with her family out in the living room.

I kept vigil with my father. I sat alone with him wiping his mouth and holding his wrist, feeling his pulse, his remaining life. I spoke to him not knowing if he could hear me. I didn’t pray to God, I spoke directly to my father. I told him it was okay to go. I told my father I loved him. I told him he was a good father. I told him a joke. I cried. I wiped my eyes, then I wiped his. He wasn’t blinking and a salty crust had formed on one corner of his right eye. I didn’t want his eyes to dry out and the expressionless stare was breaking my heart. I gently moved the eyelids down as I’ve seen others do on television, but they wouldn’t stay closed.

Time stood still. The room grew darker and dad’s breathing grew lighter. His breaths were softer now and farther apart. The gurgling was coming to an end. The noise in my ears and in my head grew hollow, distant. I released my grip on his wrist and stood up. Joyce needed to be here now. I walked in a daze down the narrow hallway to the living room noticing noise and reality again, hearing one of Joyce’s grandsons talking. I choked out a request that she come into the bedroom for a minute. She quickly got out of the chair and untangled her oxygen tubes from around her legs. She followed me and as we entered the bedroom I told her it was time. We moved silently around the end of the bed. We drew near and stared down at dad’s face, his expressionless eyes, his open mouth, his chest and bulging stomach beneath the thin blanket. We moved closer and I saw a wince, a grimace, a sour contortion on his face. I don’t think Joyce saw it. It was brief and it reminded me of the face a baby makes when it needs to pass gas. The density in the room changed. The gurgling stopped. Dad’s chest stilled. It was January 2, the beginning of a new year and the end of a long, good life.


Philip “Pete” Ambuske    1931-2017

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“How are you feeling?”
“Not good,” came weakly in response to the cardiologist’s question.
“Are you in pain?”
“No,” my father answered.
“Are you uncomfortable?”
“Yes.” I knew there’d be a follow-up to that question.

I helped my father out of his sweatshirt, at the nurse’s instruction, just before the doctor entered the room. The nurse had taken his vitals and checked his bag of medicines assuring the pills and dosages were according to her chart. As I pulled the shirt over his head I looked down at his bare chest, the scars, the bony shoulders and jutting collar bones, the sagging breasts, the outline of the defibrillator under the pale skin looking more like an old flip phone covered in flesh. I knew dad was cold so I covered his naked shoulders with the sweatshirt. I sat down in the chair situated in back of his wheelchair to wait for the doctor.
“Do you want this to be over?” I asked.
There was a slight hesitation then a faint, breathless but clearly spoken “Yes.”
He knew what I meant. It was time.

My father never improved after the new heart valve was installed at the beginning of July. The valve made his heart stronger but dad never really recovered from the procedure and he never felt right. Throughout the summer as my father was getting increasingly weaker and frustrated in his lack of improvement, I broached the subject of a nursing home. He was having more and more difficulty getting around, he was walking slower always short of breath and he could no longer drive. He was frustrated and often took out that frustration on Joyce. He was short with her. She was feeling just as defeated, unable to will him better, feeling less appreciated for her sacrifices and struggles, not that she was asking for thanks. Dad quashed the idea of a nursing home. He would rather just go directly to the funeral home, he said. No intermediate moves. He continued to grow weak, his energy increasingly diminished. With each passing day he lost interest in working toward recovery, improving his strength and stamina. The rest of him was beginning to give way. His breathing was labored because fluids were building up around his lungs and stomach, pushing against his diaphragm, making the heart work harder. He was frustrated, angry and miserable. He would tell Joyce he wished he had a gun.

At Thanksgiving I mentioned again the possibility of a nursing home and both he and Joyce were adamant. Dad was still able to maneuver around the house albeit feebly. No, they would continue to manage.

Now nearing Christmas as the doctor asked how he was uncomfortable Dad looked at him searching for the right words. Would he mention the constant fatigue, the shortness of breath, the difficulty in getting to the bathroom before another bout of diarrhea, the loss of appetite, the lapses in short-term memory? My father, always a man of few words, said, “I can’t do anything.” That summed up the past year. He was a man always busy: driving, mowing the lawn, shoveling the snow, painting, puttering, cleaning, organizing, fixing this, repairing that, helping a neighbor or a friend. Now, five months after a new valve was inserted into his artery intended to renew his lease on life, he couldn’t do anything. He was spending his days drifting in and out of sleep cocooned on the couch, exhausted from brushing his teeth. He could no longer climb onto the bathroom scale and stand steady enough to weigh himself. He didn’t have the strength to shave.  He hadn’t taken a shower in weeks.  His distinctive shuffle prevalent over the summer and into fall had taken on a stilted, desperate lurch, one step, two steps, bracing against some object for support before the final, tactical push to the couch where he could finally give into gravity and collapse, calling it a day. Once prone he would continue his struggle, but now with the Buffalo Bills blanket that would keep him warm.

I mentioned to the doctor that Dad and Joyce needed help. Dad had become powerless and Joyce could no longer go this alone. I knew that if Dad fell Joyce would never be able to get him back up. The doctor talked about hospice and what that meant and would entail. No more x-rays, no more blood tests, no intervention. The key would be to let the natural processes play out and hospice’s goal would be to make Dad comfortable. We nodded not daring to look at each other.

The cardiologist would work with Dad’s primary caregiver and hospice and things would be settled in the next few days, although Christmas would get in the way. I helped Dad back into his sweatshirt and coat and then wheeled him out to the car. He struggled into his seat, I helped lift his feet up over the threshold and then wrapped the seatbelt around him. Joyce followed up with the front desk as I folded up the borrowed wheelchair and took it back inside. We had accomplished something today. We were enlisting assistance, asking someone for help, something my father and I weren’t used to doing. We had direction even though the direction was toward an end.

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One Step At a Time

There was a notch out of his ear. Just a small one near the top, but noticeable. He was sitting in the wheelchair waiting for his next appointment and I couldn’t help noticing his ears. They were so much bigger than I remembered. Old man ears, that’s what it was. The cartilage in the ears (and nose) keeps growing as we age while the bones and everything else stops growing or shrinks. Throw in gravity on the lobes and Dad’s ears really were big. I stared at the little notch. It had been a spot of skin cancer a few years before. This past year he had some more spots of cancer removed from the top of one of his hands. Nowadays it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. Heart, lungs, kidneys, thyroid, joints, eyes, you name it. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Dad’s arms have been so discolored with blotches of purple, mahogany, burgundy and brown. The skin is so thin and bleeds so easily. He stains the bed sheets, the blankets, the couch and chair cushions. Most of the damage is due to one of his blood thinners, a necessary side effect if he doesn’t want to add a stroke to his list of problems.

I came out of the bedroom at 6 AM to make coffee and he was up and dressed, steadying himself in the doorway between his bedroom and the kitchen. Joyce was asleep, her oxygen pump softly maintaining its electronic rhythms. Dad stood stooped, leaning against the door frame reaching forward toward the stove so he could begin the ten foot onslaught to the table. He looked puffy, his face bloated and tired. He was obviously weak, but anxious to get going. His first appointment at the hospital was at 8 and I told him we’d leave around 7. It had snowed the day before and a little more overnight, but mostly what snow had fallen had been blown into drifts. I showered, drank some coffee and then went outside to get the car warmed up and to shovel the driveway. I wasn’t sure how the roads would be.  Dad waited impatiently.

Once out the house dad grabbed the railing leading down to the driveway with his right hand and slowly, cautiously maneuvered his cane down the three steps with his left. I stood one step below ready to catch him if he slipped or fell.  I took my Mini, which was a stubborn lapse of judgment on my part. Dad has had a difficult time getting in and out of my car, the seat is considerably lower than what he’s used to and the door opening isn’t as wide as his minivan’s. But the heated seats pleased him to no end and partially made up for the struggles.

He shuffled anxiously to the car and together we awkwardly shifted his body around, aiming his butt just so toward the black bucket seat below. Unconsciously he grabbed the top of the door’s window to brace and steady himself. I was worried he would break the window if he fell and thought about the fingerprints I’d need to wipe off later. He let gravity take over before we were perfectly centered. He landed on the edge of the seat. He swore. I tried to reassure him that it was ok, we’d inch him back and around. He weakly lifted his legs one at a time up and over the door frame but not without some assistance. We rested his cane between his legs and I stretched the seatbelt around his bloated tummy and into its slot hidden beneath his jacket.

We casually chatted on the drive and he retold stories about his days plowing snow for the DOT, him getting a flat tire on the far end of the county during one Christmas blizzard and needing to wait several hours alone in the cab of the truck before help came. I tried to remember the number of Christmas mornings my excitement over opening presents was delayed because he had been called out overnight earning much needed overtime pay.

I pulled up to the hospital entrance and ran inside for a wheelchair. Dad opened the car door and shifted his weight around, ready for me to help him the rest of the way. The hospital’s valet secured and held the chair for us. I grabbed Dad under his right arm pit and hoisted him as he weakly tried to raise himself up. He didn’t have the strength to do it alone and he couldn’t lock his knees or straighten his hips so I slipped behind him to brace him and hold him up. He had to step up onto the curb but couldn’t command his legs to the task. The heel of his right shoe lifted half an inch then fell back down.
“It’s OK Dad, there’s no hurry.”
A mumbled “Shit.”
“Take your time, you can do this.”
A dispirited moan.
“You need to step up over the curb.”
“I can’t”
“Yes you can. You can do it.”
A minute seemed like ten. With resolve he did it, as I knew he could. The valet caught my eye and said he’d wheel my father up to the registration desk while I parked the car. He whispered that he understood. “My mother,” he said, and trailed off.

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Seeing Red; Feeling Blue

I woke up early, checking my phone for the results overnight, hoping that the sea of red in middle America had somehow dissolved into blue. It hadn’t.  I was in shock, trying to figure out what had happened and how we got to this point. I wasn’t believing that my fellow Americans could be so angry, so narrow minded, so filled with hate and ignorance, so troubled that they could cast their vote for this megalomaniac. Then a text came in from a friend: BWAAHAAA. HAAHAA. BWAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA. It was the morning after the election and this friend was goading me. I was confused and forlorn, awash with grief, and only on my second cup of coffee. I was thinking about the future, the next four years, the change of direction and ideology (what I considered a complete 180) and where that would leave us. I thought about the text message. I unfriended my friend, sat at the kitchen table and wept. The only thing I could think to do was to try to focus, stay in the present, so I watched a video and read a few articles on Mindfulness and Grief trying to figure out how to cope.

People were angry and they voted for someone not of the establishment. Personally I can’t figure out how they could have made the selection they did, how they could shrug off the braggadocio and fearmongering; the vile comments about immigrants, women, people with disabilities; the intimidation and threats; the childish taunts and Tweets; the censorship and the outright lies. I know that not all those who voted against my beliefs and my moral code are racist or misogynistic but rather they intentionally overlooked many aspects of their candidate because they felt strongly about only one or two issues that left them with no other option. Many others just wanted to go backwards in time.

The dust has been settling these intervening weeks. I don’t want to conjure up the image that the dust is like that from nuclear fallout, from an Armageddon or Holocaust, as I originally wanted to think it was. I’m visualizing more a volcanic eruption now, thick ash darkening the sky, blanketing the landscape. It’s dirty, it’s offensive, it’s choking. Something may go extinct.

Part of me wants to simply sit back and watch the train wreck I’m sure will come. Then I can smugly gloat. But I have done that already, throughout the months leading up to this election. Each morning I would scan the local paper and read the editorials and pundits on-line. I would read about the hate-filled rants at rallies, the early morning Twitter attacks on the press and anyone else bold enough to publicly criticize, and I’d watch the enthusiasm and adoration for this political burlesque grow. I’d snicker at the brazen lies I heard told (how can anyone seriously believe that drivel?), shudder at the bald-faced bigotry and hatred displayed by supporters (wait, isn’t this 2016?), and I couldn’t imagine that this vile clown could possibly be taken seriously. I’d shake my head, pour another cup of coffee and pick up my pencil for the daily Suduko.

After the election I’m reading about the uptick in overt bigotry across the nation. I’m seeing images of college students in black-face, of alt-right swastikas and Confederate flags proudly marking territory, boasting white nationalism, slapping their hatred and fear across our faces. I’m hearing of emboldened suburbanites telling people of color to go back to where they came from. It’s okay now, just look at the map.


No, it is not okay. My BwaaHaaaHaaa friend (I couldn’t stay unfriended long) tried to assure me that I will be only marginally impacted by this new regime because I live comfortably in the blue of New York State. But I’m not afraid for myself so much as I’m afraid for those who get bullied because they are different, because they are not male, or not white, or not straight, or not Christian. I’m one of those people that believe in the power and beauty of diversity. I believe that climate change is real. I believe that a woman should have the right to make one of the hardest and most personal choices she should ever have to make. I’m afraid that Sarah Palin will be in charge of all Federal Lands and, using her personal email account, hand them over to Big Oil with a wink and a nod (Frack Baby Frack, this land is your land).

Many of us woke up angry the morning after the election. I know I did. I could not think straight and I wandered throughout the day in a fog. I cannot think or act logically, or compassionately, when I am angry. No one can.  The articles and the video on Mindfulness and Grief all supported the fact that I am not alone; we are not alone in our grief. The millions of us who awoke to shock and an overwhelming feeling of doom the day after the election can get our strength back and refocus. We can bond together stronger and with greater purpose. We must tend to our emotions, acknowledge our anger and face our fears.  We need to ask ourselves why we’re angry, why we’re fearful. In principle we are taking a moral inventory of ourselves.  By doing that we can begin to understand. We can find compassion, focus our own passion and begin to heal.

I understand this, but ofttimes have a difficult time practicing it. What do you do when the other person, the other aisle, the other half of the country doesn’t listen back? I’m still angry but I’ve calmed down. I’m willing to show civility. I’m willing to show respect but feel I am getting none in return. An anti-Semite is placed here, corporate nabobs are placed there (foxes guarding the henhouse), a tyrant and blowhard is suddenly our international voice of reason, nationalism cements isolation and a thousand-mile wall, and capitalism trumps the environment because that’s good business.  The dust, this volcanic ash, is settling and some of it is quickly enriching the soil and cultivating a stronger, healthier opposition. The press, at least the press I read, is not pandering to the elected and his selected and the bad actors feeling vindicated.

I will not leave this country now that it needs me more than ever. I will not angrily march proclaiming that this President is hashtag Not My President. I may not agree with him or his politics, but he is a product of this democracy that we revere and encourage.

What can I do?  I can face my fears through mindfulness. If I am angry I can be angry without being hateful.  I can corral that anger and harness my passion and I can use my voice to take a stand, to write my legislators and those in power. (I will have pre-printed envelopes ready for Mr. Schumer, Ms. Gillibrand, Ms. Warren, and Mr. Sanders). I can stand up for my beliefs.   I can encourage my friends and like-minded others to speak up as well, to act.  I can stop being complacent. I can be my true blue self.

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It’s a Small World

There were four flights in total: Ranong to Bangkok, Bangkok to Tokyo, Tokyo to Chicago and Chicago to Albany. More or less 10,000 miles, backwards across the International Date Line and 12 time zones. Grueling seems too soft a word to describe the trip home. I left my hotel at 4:30 AM, needing to be at the airport three hours before the international flight. There was last minute repacking at the check-in counter and the exchanging of Thai baht for US dollars. I was already feeling exhausted and numb anticipating the next full day of travel and the unknown of what awaited me. I don’t sleep on airplanes so the longest leg, the twelve hour hop to Chicago, was the most painful. With each successive flight the seats narrowed and the legroom diminished. Between movies I spent my time watching our progress on the screen in front of me, the slow arc from Tokyo out over the North Pacific, following the coast of Alaska south, crossing over land at Vancouver and then the slow trek over US airspace; the names of islands, bays, mountains and cities alternating between Japanese and English.


I numbly maneuvered through long lines and security checkpoints.  I toted my luggage and unconsciously emptied my pockets and removed my belt without being asked.  I was scanned and wanded while trying to figure out what time it was where I had just come from and where I was going next.  Once home jet lag and cultural readjustment assaulted me. I quickly bought a car and remembered how to use the stick shift and stay on the right side of the road as I took off across New York State to see my ailing father.

When my father was younger he traveled a bit. He was in the army and was stationed at various bases around the US, in Oklahoma and Washington. Next he was off to Korea for a war where he was wounded, a bullet through the knee. He was shipped back to Long Island, NY for a while where he mended. Near the end of his stay at the army hospital there he ventured to New York City a few times where he boasts of having drinks with Frank Sinatra. Later he was off to Germany to serve out his commitment and it was there he met my mother.


Dad doesn’t travel anymore and most days he doesn’t feel like doing anything. His world has shrunk to the mobile home he and Joyce have been living in for the past decade. Nowadays he travels from the bedroom to the bathroom, the bathroom to the kitchen, the kitchen to the living room and the living room to the patio when the weather is nice. More or less fifty feet through the house.  Each leg is grueling.  He shuffles around with his cane and has difficulty getting himself into and out of chairs. He totters from the bedroom to the kitchen in the morning balancing himself as he passes the stove, inching along the kitchen counter to the table where he empties the first compartment of pills for the day, drinks his juice and eats his cereal. He methodically checks his weight and his blood pressure and records them on the calendar. He then scuffles out of his kitchen chair and cautiously inches his way toward the living room. He pauses and calculates, gathering courage and steam before the final assault toward one of the recliners at the far end of the room. There he arms himself with the TV remote. He puffs. There are no deep sighs or inhalations only quick gasps of breath. A weakened heart and fluid buildup around his lungs make breathing difficult. Under each breath come breathless expressions giving voice to his frustration and unease, Jeez or Shit. He’s tired. He’s restless. When he has the energy, when the weather is favorable—not too hot, not too cold, not too muggy, not too windy—he sits outside under the carport. He struggles with the screen door and the step out of the living room. He prudently depends on his cane and the hand railing to maneuver the three stairs down to the covered patio.

Over the course of a pleasant afternoon all four chairs on the patio get occupied, each in turn giving him a different view of the road, the house, the yard. Those times he’s not outdoors each chair inside is visited for a time: both recliners, the wingback chair and the sofa. When night falls and Joyce joins him in front of the TV, the sofa is his preferred resting place where he curls up and drifts off, exhausted.

All day long he is unsettled, tired and frustrated, pained and disheartened. He questions the effectiveness of his surgeries, his heart procedures, his medicines and his recovery. He wants to be well, like the man he was a few years ago. He wants to mow the lawn and wash the car. He wants to be able to walk without a cane, to take strides instead of shuffling. He wants to drive himself and putter. But those days, like the days when he was bending elbows with Old Blue Eyes at a club in New York City, are gone.

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Saying Goodbye, Coda


Myanmar across the Kra River from Ranong

Thick clouds hung just above the mountains. The rain was going to start again soon. It was late Tuesday afternoon and I was flying out of my sleepy provincial airport that hosted only one airplane, with flights twice daily to and from Bangkok. The plane rose north along the coast of the Andaman Sea and I could see the southern tip of Myanmar out the window as the sun was going down through a break in the clouds far to the West. We swung east over the mountains and flew over my village on the way out. I gaped at the scarred mountaintops, the open porcelain mines, encircling the town as I leaned into the window to see if I could figure out which house had been mine.


The porcelain mines surrounding my mountaintop village

I quickly found the roof of the house I had just said goodbye to two hours before. I pictured the comfortable green plastic chair on the patio I lazily lounged in every morning sipping coffee and reading the electronic news feeds on my laptop.IMG_1480 I could see my landlady washing out the vases for the spirit houses in the front yard and I briefly pictured her back across the road at her house climbing the rambutan tree in her front yard hacking off branches of the reddening fruit to share with me. IMG_3546I thought of the white dog that had adopted me and claimed my porch as her own and how I took to sweeping the eleven puppies she was nursing off my patio when they started to explore. I followed the road from my house down past the hall at the back of the temple where most of the village funerals took place. I thought of all the food that was shared as merit for the dead: the bags of warm rice, the too-spicy red curry, the bony fish, the sautéed greens, the omelets, and the soups. I continued down the road past the orange-robed monks sweeping leaves from the plaza in front of the temple where the huge fat Buddha loomed on the hillside above. IMG_3026.JPGI passed the stray dogs and cats comatose in the tropic sun and heat. As I crossed the bridge in front of the temple I looked down at the young boys swimming naked in the dammed up river dragging up turtles and frogs to take home for dinner. IMG_3685My mind’s eye remembered the little girl who ran up to me every afternoon confidently shouting, “Good Morning, Good Morning” despite my repeated attempts to teach her “Good Afternoon.” My eyes spied the school grounds and I thought of the chalk dust and the school uniforms and the holes in the students’ white socks. IMG_3690I remembered how the kids stared at me my first few weeks there, taking in all that was so different about me and how we eventually became familiar and almost comfortable with each other. How they smiled and laughed when I allowed myself to be goofy and less guarded.

IMG_2940I followed the road along the back side of the village where a farm sprang up unannounced one week, a bamboo and palm frond shack rising from the ground providing shelter and home for a pair of men who worked this patch of land, hoeing and planting, watering and tending the greens that grew and were harvested so quickly. I spied the bike shop at the intersection that was always teeming with motorbikes and young Burmese men squatting by the roadside eyeing me with suspicion. I traced the road quickly around the village past the soccer field, past the weekly market, past the vendors in the middle of town where I bought bananas and watermelon, garlic, okra and eggs, past the municipal building and the clinic and all the colorful houses I had become so familiar with during my short fourteen months as resident.

IMG_2050I smiled and silently nodded goodbye to my barber with his tattoos, to the mailman on his scooter, to the young Muslim woman at the market I bought fried chicken from each week, to the wiry little man whose name I never learned who delivered my 20 liter jug of water, to An-Wa the bearded roti vendor, to Jai who crushed extra garlic into my som tom, IMG_1668to the teachers at the school and all the kids who were patient with my abysmal Thai and who enjoyed making me laugh. I beamed thinking of Dtarn and Bingo, Wamin, Bank, Om Noi, Mii, Sari, A, Abdul, Goi, Mr. Green, and all the others who looked after me and made me feel safe. I bowed my head in thanks to all of those simple, unconscious acts of kindness that were afforded me so freely.IMG_5186


IMG20160526093558My village disappeared behind the clouds as we ascended and before I had a chance to visit one last time the reservoir and the canyon further up the mountain. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. When I opened my eyes again the clouds had disappeared. We had crossed the peninsula and were now over the Gulf of Thailand. I looked down at the green lights shining from the squid boats off the coast. My village was behind me, a memory.

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Saying Goodbye, Part III

My final days in Thailand were a jumble. The news of my father’s health; the decision to cut short my time in the Peace Corps; the persistent, suffocating aloneness; the packing; the indeterminate plans for an indeterminate future all kept me awake at night and unfocused during the day. I was anxious. I was fearful. I was disappointed. I was confused and depressed. I could not stay in the present. When I finally made the decision to ET I knew things would happen quickly. I finalized my choice on a Monday and was to be in Bangkok first thing Wednesday morning to begin the three-day process of ending my long held dream of serving my country in the Peace Corps.

Monday I packed. I had two bags and a weight limit. My house was a mess, there was a pile on the floor of things I knew I wanted to take home and a pile that I knew could be left behind. The pile of things to take home was then divided into things I knew I needed and things I simply wanted. Those piles were then divvied up into things I needed to have right away when I arrived stateside and those things I could live without for a while. I had managed to get a big box the week before, anticipating shipping things home and it was filling up quickly. Not having a scale to weigh my load with I cautiously packed shoes and souvenirs into the luggage I’d take with me. The little pocket notebooks crammed with daily scribbles detailing how hot it was, what I ate, and how to say things in Thai were stacked into that box to be shipped. Essential underwear, T-shirts and shorts were packed in the luggage. The art supplies I never used and the collection of mostly-solved New York Times crossword puzzle books were stacked into the box. It was going to be summer back home so the socks I never had to wear in Thailand and the lace up shoes covered in mold could take the slow boat home. Even though I had no plans of pounding up green curry paste anytime soon, the eight-pound granite mortar and pestle was going home with me.


After the initial chaotic packing Monday morning, sweating in the early heat and humidity that was the beginning of rainy season, I walked to the municipal office and broke the news to my counterpart that I would be leaving, not to return. She showed concern but I saw relief in her eyes; we never really knew how to communicate. By the time I walked back to my house a few hours later my landlady had already heard the news and greeted me at the door to express her surprise and how much she’d miss me. Or at least that’s what I told myself she said.

IMG_5235I was down to the final 24 hours in my little village and there was so much I needed to do and so much more to worry about. I needed to finish packing, I needed to get to the post office down the mountain to ship the box and weigh my bags, I needed to ask my counterpart to help me deal with the airline, I needed to book a hotel room in Bangkok, I needed to settle my internet bill, and I needed to clean out the refrigerator. I began to worry about those final three days tying up loose ends with the Peace Corps: the goodbyes to the staff whose names I never learned, the exit interviews, the closing of my bank account, the medical tests and specifically the three-day poop test. (Being perpetually constipated, this was going to be a problem.)

I dreaded the next few days. I dreaded the goodbyes and I dreaded the travel. I was worried about how I was going to adequately and sincerely thank everyone for their kindness knowing I didn’t have the skills to adequately and sincerely do that. I was sleepless and exhausted, my guts already twisted and knotted thinking about the cramped cabins and seats on the series of flights home. I was worried about arriving home, needing to buy a car and wondering how I would get to the car dealer to do that. I was a week and 8700 miles ahead of myself projecting and thinking about the drive across New York State—my first time behind a wheel in a year and a half—rushing to my Dad’s house wondering what condition I would find him in and what his future would be. I thought about my own future and my head was filled with worries and doubts and an endless, disordered To Do list.  I was going home.


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Saying Goodbye, Part II

As I was beginning my second year in Thailand I found I was sleeping less. I was waking up at 4 AM, then 3 AM, and not being able to fall back asleep. I blamed it on the mattress and the heat and the funny, mewling sound my fan made as it oscillated at the foot of the bed. I wasn’t walking around the village and greeting people as often and I blamed it on my lousy language skills and the heat. I was eating less and I blamed it on too much rice and the heat. I lost interest in reading and writing and I just wanted to sit in the plastic chair on my patio and stare. I tried to blame the heat but in reality I had nothing and no one to blame but myself.


The view from my patio.  From the left, the drink stand my landlady’s granddaughter ran, the local roti vendor (An-wa) and and my landlord (Daeng), and the spirit houses.

At the half way mark of my Peace Corps service I was at a low point, the same low point that many volunteers experience, but I wasn’t seeing the next upswing. Something had been bothering me for a very long time and I had been ignoring it, pushing it aside as irrelevant and inconsequential, minimizing its value and impact. But deep inside I knew otherwise.

I had always wanted to be in the Peace Corps, ever since I was a child. It seemed so altruistic and exotic and I wanted to picture myself as being altruistic and slightly exotic. I wanted to be seen as being a little off-center, a little novel, a little daring—but in a safe way–living beyond my comfort zone, but only a step or two outside that comfort zone. I still had limits. Along with the usual happy childhood memories, those sights and sounds and smells of growing up in small town America in the 1960s, I locked those impressions of that exotic and altruistic Peace Corps self in a little box and tucked it beneath the floorboards in a corner of my conscience. Many years later, nearing retirement, I went searching for that dusty and almost forgotten box and polished up that dream of serving my country in the Peace Corps.


Peace Corps Thailand in the 70s.

After I sent off my application to Washington I waited and waited for a placement and I felt as if my recruiter had forgotten me. I pestered her without being an out and out pest and I waited some more, a life paused. I thought about the semester in college I spent in Southern Chile near Tierra del Fuego, working in a National Park. I worked alongside a Peace Corps volunteer involved in park development there and that’s what I saw myself doing. Almost 40 years later I was hoping for an assignment like that, something drawing upon the things I’d added to my resume through the years, something in forestry or agriculture or dealing with environmental concerns. This was the Peace Corps of my memories: planting trees, digging wells, building outhouses. This was the Peace Corps from the posters and ad campaigns of the 60s and 70s when I was coming of age. Finally, a year and a half of waiting paid off and my recruiter offered me an assignment. She said there were openings in a fairly new program, Youth in Development. I had no kids, no nieces or nephews. I never taught children and I had no idea how to relate to them. The joke was, “I don’t even like kids.” But I figured, what the heck. One of the core expectations of the Peace Corps (#3 if memory serves) is to be flexible. This being the only offer coming in, I accepted.

As Youth in Development volunteers (Peace Corps Thailand cleverly refers to this program as Yin D. Yin dii in Thai means delighted, joyful) we were to provide life skills training to Thai youth. Through games and play activities we would inspire them to think differently about cooperation and team building, about getting along with others, about making healthy decisions, about creative thinking and problem solving, and the list went on. I didn’t have the background or the skill sets needed to work effectively with youth and because of that I didn’t have the initial spark of enthusiasm. My heart just wasn’t in it. This program I was in, this program I was trying to fit into, this program I really didn’t want to be in, just didn’t feel right. Each game, each icebreaker, each energizer, each activity geared toward engaging youth felt awkward. I was clumsy, uncomfortable, embarrassed, and I simply felt inept trying to engage the kids. I was not joyful or delighted. I was not yin dii.

Peace Corps Thailand understands the vagueness of Yin D and gives volunteers latitude in shaping their programs to individual strengths. We had a lot of flexibility. I slowly got into the classroom and helped one of the school’s English teachers and that went well. I truly enjoyed the kids. I saw opportunities for an environmental project or two but they didn’t align with what the community wanted. My derisory language skills left me unable to communicate my ideas and desires.  Throughout that first year I kept telling myself, “Give it a year. See how you feel. See if things get better, easier, less awkward.” They didn’t.

If I left early I would feel like a failure, a quitter. I would be a disappointment to myself for not living up to my commitment, to my dream. I would feel a traitor to my own high standards. Could I sweat through another year of this? I waffled for months, go or stay. What if played out in detail. The rainy season was upon me and it was coming down hard. Torrents of self-doubt, stubbornness, defeat, pride. No. Yes. Go. Stay.

Then someone posted a quote on social media, “Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy.” The storm clouds broke.


It was at this point I spoke to my stepmother about my father’s failing health. The two factors, the two storm fronts, collided and I knew I had to go home. I was quitting but I was quitting for the noble reason that I needed to be with my father. Peace Corps staff said they understood, my fellow volunteers would understand, and the Thai people I knew would understand and wonder why I wasn’t home already taking care of him and providing for him. It was time for me to walk away and take my need for altruism back to its roots.

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Saying Goodbye, Part I

It was New Year’s Day 2014, cold and gray. Albany hadn’t seen much snow yet and the ground was bare. I boarded Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited mid-morning and headed west. When I arrived in Buffalo, in the dark, the snow was coming down steadily; the roads were white and slick. I still needed to travel fifty miles south, through the dreaded Lake Erie snow belt, to get to my Dad’s. Early the next morning I’d be driving three 80-year olds: my father, stepmother and her sister, Thelma, to their winter home in Florida. My parents had reached the age where they didn’t feel comfortable making the trip on their own so I offered to drive the thousand miles for them. It was still snowing when we left pre-dawn. The going was slow, trying to stay in the two thin, bare asphalt tire tracks in an otherwise white-covered Interstate. We knew that once we got a little south of Erie, PA away from the lake, the snow would ease up and we’d have good roads again. An hour after we left home Joyce remembered she’d left her cellphone charging on the kitchen counter. We weren’t going back. Her son could mail the phone down to her.


Dad and Joyce

Dad rode shotgun, the two sisters shared the back. Over the two-day drive the four of us bantered and bickered and bonded. Every couple hundred miles I prodded Dad with questions about his family, his eight brothers and sisters and their life growing up. I asked him about the war in Korea and his gunshot wound and about my mother and their early years together. Joyce was surprised these two stoic and non-communicative men were actually talking to each other. Being an only child I was closer to my mother when I was young and have only gotten close to Dad since she died back in 1989. Oh, we got along well enough then; it was a happy childhood. But we didn’t do much together. Dad worked hard and had his hobbies and putterings and alone time and I had mine. I am my father’s son. Nowadays we are comfortable with each other and we can sit and not talk together for hours.

I was joining the Peace Corps and would be leaving before they got back from Florida, so this was our goodbye. I’d be gone for two years and I might not see one or both of them again. As things turned out my assignment to Ukraine was aborted just before it began and I received the blessing of another year to spend time with my father and Joyce before my new assignment in Thailand. On New Year’s Day 2015 we said our goodbyes again.

My family and I are from the ‘no news is good news’ school of communication and during a year and a half in Thailand we had chatted fewer than a half dozen times. My Dad doesn’t use the computer and Joyce isn’t one for lengthy emails. She sometimes loses them before, or while, hitting the send button, so she keeps them brief, having less to remember when she needs to type the message a second or third time. The message this one particular morning said that they “didn’t make out well,” that they were keeping Dad in the hospital for more tests and it didn’t look like he’d be getting a new valve. It ended with, “Give me a call!” It was 6:30 AM my time (Wednesday), 7:30 PM her time (Tuesday). I needed to call before she took her hearing aids out for the night.

Dad has had heart problems for years, two bypasses, two pacemaker installations and he’d been getting increasingly weak over the past year. He’d lost all energy and couldn’t move off the couch. It was a struggle for him to take a shower. Joyce couldn’t remember everything the doctors said, she has her own issues and she’s been tired and frustrated dealing with Dad’s weakness and obstinacy. Apparently the doctors couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fix the heart valve. His lungs and stomach were filling with fluids and he needed frequent draining. The doctors were willing to take care of that and keep him comfortable. The news didn’t sound good to me either. I needed to go home.

Dad and Joyce are both 84 and even though we’d said our goodbyes twice, I felt that wasn’t going to be enough. I needed to be closer than half way around the world. I needed to sit with him a few more times and ask more of the questions I failed to ask during that trip to Florida and throughout my life these past 60 years. Joyce’s email and the ensuing conversation rattled me and it gave me the excuse I needed, the excuse I’d been looking for, to end my Peace Corps service. I was going to need to say goodbye to Thailand too.

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