Daughter T and I have been preparing memorials to honor Nana and Paco (my parents) and brought them to the building in the memorial park where their cremains are inurned a couple of days ago.
The memorial for Nana is one of her favorite bud vases filled with lily-of-the-valley, which was her birth flower. She always loved them and we would pick bouquets of them every year to bring to her for Mother’s Day and her birthday. Shortly after we bought our home in the late ’80s, we dug some pips from spouse B’s and my childhood yards and transplanted them. As lily-of-the-valley spread aggressively, we now have a large patch in our backyard and they always bloom in mid-May. The flowers in Nana’s vase now have to be artificial as fresh flowers aren’t allowed but it means there will always be a reminder of May near her grave.
Paco’s memorial was created by granddaughter T. She took an empty Irish whiskey bottle and filled it with a rainbow of origami birds. Paco was not a big drinker but he was Irish and Nana used to always make him a Blarney cake which featured Irish whiskey around St. Patrick’s Day and his birthday in March. T meticulously folded 320 tiny origami birds to fill the bottle with the colors of the rainbow. It reminds me of this photo of Paco’s trip of a lifetime to Ireland, inserted into the brief window after Nana’s death but before the pandemic descended.
It was also the first time for Trinity to visit since the placement of a service medallion for Paco, a bronze replica of a triangularly folded US flag with the inscription “Veteran U.S. Navy”. Paco had served as a Navy SeaBee (Construction Battalion) in both the Second World War and the Korean Conflict. He didn’t talk about his service that much when we were young, but in retirement he often wore a SeaBees cap when he was out and about. It was touching that folks would thank him for his service all those decades later.
Yesterday would have been Paco’s 97th birthday. With spring arriving, the bulk of the estate work done, and our memorials placed, I’m beginning to feel a bit more settled and at peace than I have for a long time. Nana and Paco are eternally reunited and remembered with love, flowers, and a rainbow.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my late father, known here as Paco, recently.
I wish I could say that I am browsing old photos or remembering family holidays but, instead, I am mired in dealing with trying to settle insurance claims and begin the work needed to file his final tax returns and other estate sort of things.
Unfortunately, some of the issues are medical and it is bringing me back to a place of feeling helpless to alleviate Paco’s symptoms and not being able to get timely and accurate information about his condition.
It’s difficult and energy-draining and makes me feel like crawling into bed and pulling the covers over my head.
I’m not doing that.
I am trying to shepherd my energy and steel myself to chip away at all the work. It’s going to take a long time to get through it all.
One of my most important priorities for the year-end holiday season has been sending greetings to a wide range of people from all the different eras of my life. For some of the people on my list, it was the only time of year we would be in touch. The task of preparing the cards was quite elaborate, choosing the right card for the each recipient, deciding on a brief handwritten note or a longer printed letter, even matching the postage stamp and Christmas seal to align with the religious beliefs of the person.
My accustomed process has been abandoned over these last few stressful years, with other family members helping and sometimes with me abandoning cards altogether and just sending letters, no longer personalized as I had been wont to do back in the day.
This year is one of the difficult ones.
It’s hard for me to send cards with a note telling about a death, which I need to do again this year because of Paco. We are being advised to mail extra early this year because the US mail is slower than it used to be. Also, we hope to travel over the holidays and I need to get everything done before we leave.
Despite all that, I haven’t started on my list yet.
Part of it is that it is difficult to muster energy to do things, especially emotional things like writing. It’s a common aspect with grief but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
The other block I was having was knowing that I needed to write to some of the people on my parents’ Christmas card list to let them know what has happened. I knew there were some people who probably didn’t even know about Nana’s death, let alone Paco’s, as the last time some on the list would have heard from them was four years ago when I helped put together a letter to send out.
I had promised myself not to start on my own cards until I had taken care of Nana and Paco’s friends but it was difficult to get going on that. I wound up drafting the letter in the middle of the night-before-last when I couldn’t sleep. Today, I printed and addressed envelopes and brought them to the mailbox. I’m hoping that all of them will get delivered, as I don’t know if any of the recipients may have moved.
Theoretically, I could be working on my own cards and letters right now, but, instead, I’m writing this post. I’m not sure if it is procrastination or if I have used up my energy for the day.
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.
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.
During the pandemic, I have listened to dozens and dozens of press briefings with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. I appreciated his updates on COVID, the latest medical findings, and what New York was doing to address the illness and all the other issues that arose from it. I live in upstate New York, so the information he provided was especially relevant to me, but there were many around the United States and even abroad who tuned in.
In recent weeks, there have been legislators and press members who have been critical of the governor and his administration’s handling of the reporting of deaths in relation to nursing homes. The state reported deaths by where they occurred; people who died in hospitals were reported as hospital deaths, even if they had been nursing home residents prior to hospital admission. This was the state’s consistent practice and one which was straightforward and easy to compile from death certificates. All COVID deaths in the state were reported, categorized by place of death.
The problem arose because legislators and the press wanted to know how many nursing home residents later died in hospitals and how many formerly hospitalized patients died in nursing homes. This information is more difficult to compile and the governor’s staff, who worked seven days a week for months on end, did not have time to comb through all the records to assemble a report. Unfortunately, this was perceived as a cover-up of something nefarious and things have gotten totally out of hand with accusations flying everywhere.
I am annoyed at those in the legislature who are upset with the governor over this. When they requested the information they were not in session. Like many states, the New York legislature only convenes part of the year, usually January through June. If the legislature wanted this information, they could have offered to have the legislative staff compile it, rather than expecting the executive staff to add it to their already long list of duties.
There has also been questioning of the state policy to release COVID patients to skilled nursing facilities after hospitalization, especially in spring 2020 when the virus was so widespread in New York. This was based on federal policy. It got patients who had recovered sufficiently out of the hospital, putting them in a more comfortable, less risky environment while freeing up hospital space for more critically ill patients. Although these discharged patients were likely no longer contagious, the nursing homes had to be equipped to place them in isolation. Because I was listening to Governor Cuomo’s press conference every day, I knew that, contrary to some reporting at the time, nursing homes were not “forced” to take patients; they only accepted them if they were equipped to do so. Somehow, this morphed into stories that COVID was introduced into nursing homes by these recovering patients. In truth, COVID entered the nursing homes through staff who were living, shopping, etc. in the local community.
I am not an uninterested bystander in this case. My father lives in a senior facility which has been operating under COVID precautions for almost a year now. Despite that, they have lost at least six residents to COVID and have had more infections from which residents were able to recover. The cases originated from the outside community, not from a resident discharged from the hospital. The staff of the facility is tested at least weekly and screened for symptoms daily, but, as we know, the coronavirus is virulent before symptoms and before it shows up as positive in a test, so staff have unknowingly exposed residents, their families and co-workers.
Somehow, it has become easier to just blame Governor Cuomo. The legislature is threatening to revoke the emergency powers it granted to the governor to handle the pandemic, which is their right to do. However, if they do that, they had better be prepared to remain in session and react quickly to changing circumstances with disease variants, vaccinations, etc. The New York state legislature is not known for being agile – or even functional a great deal of the time – so they had better think carefully before they vote. It’s a lot easier to complain than it is to govern.
There have also been complaints of the governor bullying people and recently of sexual harassment. I am not commenting on those accusations at all as I have no basis to judge their veracity. I did want to address the reports on deaths and nursing homes because those are matters of public record and were clear to me as they were unfolding. Suffering the loss of a loved one is difficult enough without having questions about the circumstances of their death circulated in the press.
It has just been announced that the United States has reached 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.
A half a million deaths among the 28 million confirmed cases. About 30% of those infected continue to have symptoms for weeks/months.
All of this in about a year’s time.
I had been watching a recording of mass for the first Sunday of Lent. When it finished, I tuned to a news channel. One of the frequent medical contributors, herself a physician, was speaking about the deaths and was struggling to keep from crying. The host noted how appropriate it was to react emotionally, as she herself was.
Such enormous loss. So much suffering. A reminder that, despite medical advances, we are nearing the death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic.
My eyes are filling with tears as I write this, both from the huge losses in our country and the world and from the losses of each one. Just recently added to the list a friend of my sister’s, the father of B’s co-worker, a resident in the apartments of Paco’s senior community.
Even with the vaccines becoming available, there will be many more illnesses and deaths. There will be uncertainty from the new variants’ effects, how long immunity will last after infection or vaccination, how people will behave as recommendations and policies change.