is something I have been saying to myself off and on for years.
The truth is that most of my adult life has been spent as a caregiver, some of it in very challenging situations dealing with long-term illnesses.
Not the kind of life that lends itself to following a daily schedule. If you ever think you know what is happening on a given day, chances are the phone will ring in the morning and you will be off dealing with some need that has arisen.
Let me be clear that none of this is a complaint. Rather it’s just a statement of fact – and evidence that I was privileged enough to be able to choose a life of unpaid caregiving instead of needing to take paid work and cramming in the caregiving around my employer’s schedule.
The day after Paco’s death, the hospice social worker said to me that now I could figure out what I wanted to do. We had first met during my mother’s illness, so she had some idea of what my life has been like over at least the last few years, if not decades.
While it’s true that I have spouse B and daughter T at home, we are able to collaborate on taking care of the house and each other, so the years of intensive caregiving are probably over for a while, as long as we all remain reasonably healthy.
So, I’m starting to piece together how I want to spend my time in the coming months. Admittedly, right now I am necessarily busy with settling Paco’s estate and final bills and insurance claims and such, which takes a lot more time and energy than you might think if you have never had to do this for a loved one.
I’m trying to keep from jumping back into everything I have put on hold in the past because I think there is a danger of over-committing and exhaustion. I do know that I want to spend more time with writing, so, perhaps, finally regularly posting here again.
I also need to return to spending serious amounts of time with my poetry. During the recent Boiler House Poets Collective residency, I was able to re-connect with my full-length manuscript that revolves around that area and my family’s connections with it. I am going to do a review of it with the Grapevine Group, my local poetry circle, later this month and then do revisions and look for submissions opportunities. I also need to look for more opportunities for my chapbook, as the rejections have been rolling in over these last months so it is only out at a few places at the moment.
I am considering auditioning for a local chorus, although that might not be until after the holidays. I expect that, for the first time in many years, we may travel for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I am staying in the loop but not spending a ton of time on environmental and political issues. I still send letters and do public comment on social justice and environmental causes and send emails to my elected representatives but I am trying not to spend hours every day on it, as I did for years during the height of the anti-fracking fight in New York. I admire the energy and commitment of today’s younger activists and support their efforts as best I can.
Church volunteering is still on hold. Eventually, the book study I facilitate may return but only if we can meet safely indoors unmasked. We aren’t there yet.
So, can I do this? Can I re-organize my life and have it stick?
As part of my ongoing participation in the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine phase III trial, yesterday I received a third vaccine injection, seven and a half months after my second. There was a blood draw to test levels of antibodies, T cells, etc. and the blood work will be repeated in a year. I will continue a weekly symptom check through a phone app and have a couple of phone appointments over the next year, too. The data collected will be used to inform on-going decisions about how often boosters may be needed in the future.
I’m fortunate that my side effects have been milder than they were with the second injection. I have a very sore arm, which is obviously from the shot. I’m tired and have a bit of a headache, which could be side effect and could be just life in general these days. Today is the one-month anniversary of Paco’s death, so how I am feeling could be attributable to that rather than to vaccine side effects. When spouse B and daughter T, who are also study participants, received their third doses, they both lost a day to fever, body aches, and fatigue; because I had had a similar reaction to my second dose, I was expecting a similar experience, but apparently have lucked out.
In the United States, a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine is approved for those aged 65 and up, people who have medical risk, and those in certain professions that have close contact with vulnerable populations. It’s possible that the third dose will be recommended more generally in the future as more data become available. It’s also likely that emergency use authorization for children aged 5-11 will come soon, with shots in arms starting in early November.
Recommendations on booster doses for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are expected soon, as well as the possibility of mixing manufacturers, for example, someone who had the J&J vaccine having a booster from Pfizer. All the companies are continuing to study the vaccines for long-term efficacy and side effects, as well as safety, efficacy, and dosage for children six months through seventeen years. Currently, in the United States, only Pfizer is approved for ages 12-17.
Another helpful development is that Merck has applied for emergency use authorization of molnupiravir, an oral anti-viral to combat COVID. It would be given to patients in the early stages in hopes of keeping their illness from becoming severe. While it is already possible to give treatments by injection or infusion, such as monoclonal antibodies, this medication would be easy to prescribe and administer for home use. A decision by the FDA is expected within weeks.
Meanwhile, over the summer, COVID cases were devastating parts of the US, especially states with low vaccination rates. Total fatalities are over 700,000 with over 44 million cases recorded. In some areas, hospitals were so overwhelmed that they had to send patients out of state to receive care. This applied to COVID patients and also to patients suffering from other serious conditions. Two states, Idaho and Alaska, had to implement crisis standards of care, which means that whether or not an individual receives treatment beyond comfort care is determined by the likelihood of survival as there is not enough capacity to treat everyone that needs help. This resulted in non-COVID deaths from heart attack, stroke, etc. – patients who ordinarily would have been treated successfully but who died because there were not personnel, equipment, and space available to treat them due to intensive care units being filled with COVID patients.
The delta variant was the power behind the summer surge, but, at least, the fear of it encouraged more people to seek vaccination. The increase in vaccination rates is helping the case numbers to fall at this point. Still, the current rate of fully vaccinated people is only 57% with 66% receiving at least one dose. I am hopeful that the Pfizer vaccine being approved for elementary age children in the coming weeks will add significantly to our vaccination totals, at least in states where the vaccination rate among adults is higher.
There are still terrifying amounts of misinformation floating around about the vaccines that are keeping some people from taking them. Unfortunately, this is keeping the pandemic alive, resulting in illness, death, lack of access to medical care, and the possibility of even more dangerous new variants developing.
We are all in this together. Please, everyone, get vaccinated if you are eligible and follow reputable public health guidelines on masking, avoiding crowds, handwashing, etc. Your choices affect your family, friends, neighbors and community directly and your nation and the world, as well. We can’t truly end this pandemic until there’s no population anywhere still vulnerable to COVID-19.
If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for someone you love.
Because I announced my father’s death in this One-Liner Wednesday post, I’m linking the promised tribute to him with thanks to him and to all my friends and readers who have been sending out prayers and good thoughts on our behalf over the years.
Today is the last full day of the Boiler House Poets Collective reunion residency for 2021. It’s always amazing to be back here at MASS MoCA together but the experience is heightened after having to cancel because of COVID last year.
I am in the same studio as I was in the Tupelo Press workshop/residency that first brought us together in 2015. As I was looking back at my blog to get the exact dates of that residency, I decided to re-visit all the posts from back then. I was surprised that I processed as much as I did at the time, while realizing how much I had downplayed the amount of confusion and fear I was feeling.
If anyone is so moved to join me in this walk down memory lane, the posts start here.
My 96-year-old father, known here as Paco, died in mid-September, but I have been struggling to write about him. A good share of that is that the writing/analytical/organizational part of my brain has been too busy with all the phone calling and notes and paperwork that follow a death, which are by turns taxing and emotional and fraught. I’ve also been trying to find peace after so many months of complex medical and care situations which I found both exhausting and traumatic. I’ve also taken a week to attend a reunion residency with the Boiler House Poets Collective at MASS MoCA, which has been helpful both in reconnecting with family history as we are from the North Adams MA area and reconnecting with myself as a poet after so many months of sneaking in poetry time only intermittently.
But in this post, I will try to tell you more about Paco and our family.
People have asked me how my Irish-American father came to be known as Paco, which sounds more Spanish. My firstborn daughter E was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. As she was learning to talk, she couldn’t manage to say “Grandpa” and – after a few instances of calling him “Bucco” – settled on Paco as his name. This became his name with all the other grandchildren and often for other family members. It was natural for me to use it here on the blog.
It was a revelation for me seeing Paco interact with his grandchildren. Because my younger sister and I are only two years apart, I didn’t remember my father as a dad to young children. Unlike so many men of his generation, he reveled in playing with very young children and singing to them. One of the great blessings of our family life is that Nana and Paco retired near us when E was three and before T was born. Having them be so close by all those years was wonderful with walks and outings and school events and concerts, theater, and dance recitals, games and carousel rides and countless volleys of ping pong in the basement. Nana and Paco gave us so much love, care, and support for so many years; it was natural that we would provide the same to them as they grew older and developed health problems.
Paco had served in the US Navy as a SeaBee in World War II and Korea. The SeaBees were the Construction Battalion – CBs, get it? – and Paco was drafted before he could finish high school. Most of the SeaBees were older men, already established in various trades, who took Paco under their wing and taught him what they knew. The skills he developed there in electrical work set the stage for his career. Paco didn’t talk much about his service when we were growing up but, in his later years, he got some SeaBee caps which he would wear out in public. I was always amazed at how many people would comment, thank him for his service, and share their own stories of service by themselves or family members. Those tributes continued into his last days. One of the first things Hospice did after admitting him was to bring a certificate and a memorial quilt square to him. We are also applying for a service medallion to be added to his memorial in the mausoleum.
Paco worked for 43 years for New England Power Company, the last 23 as Superintendent of the Upper Deerfield River in southern Vermont/western Massachusetts. I wrote the poem “Hydro Superintendent” about him for his 90th birthday. We lived in a house that was owned by the company and often visited the powerplants and reservoirs. One of his biggest accomplishments as superintendent was overseeing the construction of Bear Swamp, a pumped storage plant built inside a mountain. Paco knew every detail of that project, which brought in contractors from as far away as Japan and Switzerland. It was so much fun walking through a giant tunnel to get to the huge powerhouse with its two turbines that could generate electricity and then reverse to pump water back to the upper reservoir. I started my interest in renewable electricity and energy storage technology young, thanks to Paco.
One of the things I admired about Paco was his work ethic. He always worked hard to get the job done right but he was also part of the team, even when he was the leader. He would help the crews do emergency work rather than just ordering them to come in. He hired the first Black and the first woman into his stations which had previously been staffed entirely by white males. (Point of information: Rural New England was not very racially diverse at the time. Some areas still are not diverse now, decades later.) He was always compassionate and understanding when employees encountered personal or family difficulties. He was also not one to “toot his own horn.” I found out how well-regarded he was by his staff through others, not from him.
We admired Paco even more when we discovered he had accomplished so much with undiagnosed dyslexia. When his youngest granddaughter S was diagnosed with an inherited form of dyslexia, Paco discovered at age 80 why he had always secretly struggled with reading and writing. S and her family launched the Paco Project to raise funds for Learning Ally to help others with print or visual disabilities access the world of books. We are proud to direct donations to Learning Ally in memory of Paco.
Paco was also proud to finally become a high school graduate. I applied for his diploma through Operation Recognition, a program which awards diplomas to veterans who left school before completing their course of study. In 2008, the same year that eldest granddaughter E graduated from high school, Paco received his diploma from Drury High School in North Adams, Massachusetts, the school that he and Nana, as well as I and my sisters, had attended.
Paco’s ancestors came to the United States from Ireland but he had never visited. Nana was too claustrophobic to consider flying, but after her death in spring 2019, my two sisters took Paco to Ireland to visit.
We were blest that all four of his grandchildren got to see Paco over the summer. We were especially grateful that granddaughter E with spouse L and great-granddaughters ABC and JG were able to visit from London UK. Because of the pandemic, we had not been able to see each other, but in August, just before the final and more precipitous portion of Paco’s decline, they were able to make the trip.
There were a few days during Paco’s last week where he was very agitated but we were fortunate to have some calmer moments. T was the only one of the grandchildren nearby enough for one final visit, which wound up being the day before he died. It was one of the most heartbreakingly tender encounters I have ever seen. T sang Irish songs to Paco and held his hands, which were still a bit restless from a medication side effect. She talked to him and I know that he could hear her because he was able to respond a bit. I admit that I couldn’t help but cry and that I am crying now as I try – and fail – to find the words to convey how special that last hour between them was.
It also happened that all three of Paco’s daughters got to spend time with him, both alone and in various pairings, on the day of his death. It was not clear that this would be his final day, so it was not that it had been planned, but I’m grateful that it turned out that way. I’m also grateful that in his last few days, I was finally able to sing to my father, something that my sisters had been doing but that I struggled to do. I sang both verses of “Over the River and through the Woods” to get to Paco’s favorite lines, “Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!” (Paco loved all kinds of pie.) I sang the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” because it is comforting to me and several beautiful Irish hymn tunes. Occasionally, I would get too choked up to continue singing but I usually managed to get through. On that last day, Paco could not respond but Hospice told us that the sense of hearing tends to remain and can even sharpen as the other senses are shutting down. My younger sister was alone with Paco when he died but I arrived soon after for my very last good-bye.
I have been so moved by the many people who have reached out to me during Paco’s decline and since his death. There have been so many kind words, both written and spoken – remembrances, prayers, thoughts, stories, expressions of gratitude for a long life well-lived. I was very touched when a friend that I made through Facebook but whom I have never met in person added my father to her Kaddish prayer on Yom Kippur. It has been the love I first learned from my parents but now experience through so many family and friends that has kept me going through all of this, even during the most difficult times. I thank all of you.
Last week, I went to the hair salon for a haircut with Diane, who has been my stylist since 1983. I told her about Paco’s death and she gave me a hug and told me that she had something to show me. It was her new puppy, who was sweetly asleep in his crate. She told me his name was Leo.
After having announced Paco’s death on One-Liner Wednesday this week, I had thought I wouldn’t post again until I had time and mental space to put together a proper tribute post or, perhaps, a post about last days and good-byes.
Then, the SoCS prompt arrived and it was puzzle and I knew I needed to post for it.
Until these last few months when he was too ill, Paco worked puzzles as part of the routine of his day. He still got the daily newspaper in print and did their wordsearch, which had the added twist that the remaining letters could be unscrambled to solve a question that was posted with the puzzle. Paco also had wordsearch books that he would work on. Wordsearches seemed like an unlikely type of puzzle for Paco to enjoy because he was dyslexic, something that he did not discover until his youngest granddaughter was diagnosed as a child with an inherited form of dyslexia. This led to a number of fundraisers organized by first Paco’s grandson and later his aforementioned granddaughter to raise money for Learning Ally, which helps people with visual impairment or print disabilities to access written language. These fundraisers came to be known as the Paco Project in his honor.
Another word puzzle that was part of Paco’s day was watching Wheel of Fortune in the evening. It came on right after the national news. My older sister would often call him at the time and they would watch part of the show together, even though they were hundreds of miles away from each other.
Paco’s other puzzle passion was jigsaws. When he was in his apartment in independent living, there was a card table in the corner of the living room with a puzzle on it for him, Nana, and visitors to work on whenever the mood struck them. For many years, he made 500 piece puzzles, with the occasional 750 piece thrown in. However, over his last couple of years as some dementia developed, he cut back to 300 piece puzzles. He worked on those until he fell in June and never recovered his ability to be up and about and clear enough mentally for puzzles.
At some point, after we get through this initial period of busy-ness with paperwork and bureaucracy following a death, we will find a home for the several shopping bags’ worth of Paco’s jigsaw puzzles that we brought home with us. I expect we will keep a few special ones as mementoes for ourselves and donate the rest for others, who we hope will enjoy them as much as he did.
Linda chose “where” as a prompt for this September 11th, assuming, perhaps correctly, that most posts would be about where we were when we found out about the 9/11 attacks in the US twenty years ago.
In Broome County NY where I live, besides the twenty year retrospectives of the 9/11 attacks, we are having the ten year retrospective of a record high flooding event on the Susquehanna River. The ground was still saturated from hurricane Irene when the remnants of tropical storm Lee dumped about ten inches of rain.
Where my house is is near a flood wall for a creek that runs into the Susquehanna. The creek came up fast with the river flooding a bit later as it collected all the run-off from the creeks as well as what was running off the hills and being dumped by storm drains.
The power was shut off in our neighborhood as the houses closer to the river started to flood. If we didn’t have a generator, our basement would have flooded when our sump pump lost electricity. One of my Memories on Facebook helpfully reminded me that two blocks from us houses had basements totally full of water and two blocks in the other direction the road was washed out and a gas main was broken. Three blocks away there was standing surface water. A big intersection of Main Street and the Parkway was underwater, too.
Most of our neighborhood had been evacuated the night the flooding began, but our little section was only under evacuation order for a few hours on the third day of the flood. We later discovered that the reason was that they were afraid of the flood wall being overtopped. Even though the creek itself had begun to recede, the flooding of the river had backed water up into the creekbed so that the water was within a foot of the top of the wall. (Just to clarify, this is an earthen/stone flood wall, not a concrete one.)
We have been lucky not to have had another severe flood like that one in the last ten years. The prior record-setting flood had been in 2006 and I fully expected we would have had another horrible flood by now.
Unfortunately, I know it is just a matter of time. Looking around the US, we have catastrophic fires in the West and flooding aftermath in Louisiana and the South, in Tennessee, and across a swath of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. There are fires in Siberia, floods in Germany and other areas in Europe, killer heat waves, and on and on. While the events themselves are natural, they have been made worse by human-caused climate change.
We have so much work to do to try to stabilize the climate and protect human, animal, plant, and marine life. And we are far behind in our efforts.
I’m upset because scientists and activists have been warning about this for decades. I myself have tried to amplify the message about climate change. It seems that people are finally listening but the amount of change of policy and behavior now will have to be huge to make a dent. Our family has tried hard to reduce our carbon footprint and to advocate for change but the world needs those in power to finally step up and lead. Governments and businesses need to put people and planet over profits. The money won’t be worth much if the planet becomes uninhabitable. **** This less-than-cheery post is part of Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday series. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/09/10/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-sept-11-2021/
While my blogging has been haphazard for months due to my father’s declining health, I wanted to share a post about the recent visit of our daughter E, her spouse L, and their daughters, four-year-old ABC and one-year-old JG. As people who check in here at TJCM periodically may recall, they live in London UK and the pandemic left us unable to visit each other. This meant that when they arrived in the US, it was our first chance to meet JG in person.
All the adults are fully vaccinated, but the children are too young to qualify. While our area of upstate New York is not a COVID hot zone, the transmission rate is still high enough due to the delta variant that we were very cautious about taking the girls to indoor public spaces. While I had scaled back my expectations for the visit a lot, I hadn’t scaled them back quite as much as I should have. For example, I had hoped to see a few more friends than we were able to. Unfortunately, Paco, my 96-year-old father, had more health challenges appear and his unit at the nursing home had to go into lockdown due to a couple of COVID cases among vaccinated staff.
In a way, though, it was nice to have them in our home, doing normal, everyday things like we had when E and ABC lived with us for over two years while waiting for E’s spousal visa to be accomplished.
B, with an assist from ABC, got to bake yummy treats for breakfast.
Everyone enjoyed watching the birds at the birdfeeders. ABC especially liked the tufted titmouse and goldfinches, while others were partial to the cardinals.
We enjoyed watching other wildlife, too. ABC even spotted some deer near the back fence. We also spent a lot of time watching the bunnies eating various leaves and flowers in the lawn.
One thing that they don’t have at home in London is rocking chairs. JG especially loved the one that was her size!
JG was an early walker so we missed her being a babe-in-arms, but Auntie T did get a taste of what that phase was like when JG got so tired she actually fell asleep in her arms.
L took the girls on walks. Here is ABC at the 1 mile – or is it 1 smile? – mark on the Rail Trail. Our area, like many others in the US, has re-purposed places where there used to be railroad tracks into recreational trails.
We also got to visit the parks and carousels. Broome County has six vintage carousels and it was very nostalgic to revisit them with ABC and introduce them to JG. ABC made friends everywhere she went.
We got to enjoy a lot of playtime with the girls. ABC, at four, has a great imagination and enjoys making elaborate scenarios. She is also quite operatic! Besides singing songs that she knows, often from Frozen I and II, she likes to make up songs while she is playing. With both her parents being accomplished singers and instrumentalists, she appears to come by music naturally. She is learning to play the piano, so we got to experience her lessons with her daddy.
ABC is also a beginning reader, so sometimes she would read to us and other times we would read to her. It was an honor to be chosen as the final bedtime story reader. Of course, she also requested a bedtime song before going to sleep.
The most important event of the trip, though, was the one visit we were able to make with Paco in the outdoor courtyard of the nursing home. ABC was being her charming self, singing and dancing and clapping for Paco.
The most precious photo is this one of the four generations.
Paco’s health has declined so much in the weeks since we had this visit that he has now been admitted to hospice care. I will be forever grateful that Paco had the opportunity to meet his second great-granddaughter who won’t remember that day and to see his first granddaughter E and first great-granddaughter ABC who certainly will.