02 October 2012

Grief Roller Coaster

There's a Zen koan:  when doing hard practice, expect the weird.

And then there's this:  When you meet the Master in the road, he will hit you in the mouth with a stick.

Both of these apply to my grief.

A short chronicle of what I've experienced to date:  Rage.  Anxiety.  Fatigue.  Nausea.  Fear.  Mania. 

I thought that Virginia's death would be an end.   I thought the grieving that we'd experienced in the last three years of her life, of the constant sense of losing pieces of what made Virginia and the pain that loss caused me would dissipate.  I was wrong.

The grief has begun to manifest itself in ways I never expected.  I've known depression and anxiety before -- hell, I've been treated for them.  Grief is different.  Grief comes to you at the moments you least expect it, and slaps you in the face.  Grief hides like a cat under the bed, and springs out and sets his claws in your leg, regardless of whether you've done anything to provoke him.  Grief hijacks your birthday, and reduces you to tears when you realize the one phone call and birthday card that followed you all your life to this moment won't be coming this year. 

Intellectually and emotionally, I know that doing anything to numb the grieving process is counterproductive.  And my grief isn't absolutely debilitating: I get up, get daily activities under way, experience the joy of walking the dog and sharing coffee with Graham -- life is beginning to go on. 

But I'm stymied by other, simple things.  And complicated issues that require real thought and persistence terrify me, and drive me literally to seek distraction. 

I know this will pass.  But while it's here with me, grief is the new normal.  And friends, it sucks big time.

14 September 2012

Excitement in the neighborhood

For the record:  No answer from PEPCO, and busy signal from District 911. 

12 September 2012

The Princess

On her way home

My name is Bootsy Collie, baby
 The cute, it burns!

28 August 2012

Last Words

My comments at VJC's funeral Mass and memorial service.  I think they're worth sharing.

Thank you all for attending Virginia’s funeral Mass, and for your love, prayers and support for us and for each other as we today commend her to God.

My mother was an extraordinary woman. She was complicated. She was compassionate. She was demanding – of herself and of all of us. She was broken. She healed and was herself healed. She taught and she learned. She gave us all many gifts of herself – for which we are deeply grateful.

I’ll share three stories from our life that for me capture Virginia’s spirit and being.

In 1977, the Oregon Health Sciences University School of Nursing received their first computers. No one –faculty, staff, or students – knew what to do with them. I’d been taking programming classes at OMSI for some time, so I was drafted to help set up the two computers and find ways for students to use them – which I was able to do, thanks in part to watching Virginia prepare for and teach her students. After I’d set up the computers, I asked my mother if she’d like to learn to use them. She looked at me with a certain contempt and steely resolve: “No Scott. What on earth could a machine do to help me or my nursing students take care of patients better?”


That look, and her tone said a lot, as did the words. I’m sure that some of you will agree, 35 years later, that Virginia was at least in part correct.

One thing about Virginia that many of you may not know was her love of speed. She loved moving quickly – running, swimming and skiing when she was younger, walking and driving when she was older. In 1985, she bought a new car – a maroon Saab 900 – and we were driving to San Francisco to visit her sister. Driving down Interstate 5, just past the California boarder, Mom turned to me and said, “Let’s see how fast the car will go.”

Cat, Catnip. I pushed the pedal to the floor. The car accelerated and soon we were traveling over 100 mph. The stereo was playing Ella Fitzgerald and Andre Previn performing Gershwin. Not surprisingly, we soon saw flashing lights in the rear view mirror. We pulled over, and the California Highway Patrol officer walked up to the car. I rolled down the driver’s side window, and spoke to the officer.

Officer: “Hello. Did you know how fast you were going?”

Scott: “Officer, I believe we were going about 110 miles per hour.”

Virginia – leaning across me to speak to the officer, with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye: “Officer, I asked my son to see how fast the car would go.”

Officer – trying to contain his laughter: “Ma’am, I see. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

We received a $25 ticket for exceeding the 55 mile per hour speed limit. We immediately paid it at the Shasta County Courthouse, and continued to San Francisco driving no more than 60 miles per hour.

But Virginia knew how fast her car could go.

One other moment to share: My mother’s body was truly a broken vessel – she had broken her neck, she was a cancer survivor, she had osteoarthritis, and had multiple surgeries and joint replacements – but she wasn’t about to let any of that stop her. Until very late in her life, she kept up a schedule of activities that would make many younger people – including me – exhausted.

Mom loved Mt. Hood and Timberline Lodge, and spent many hours in the lodge while I was skiing as a child. My partner Graham and I were visiting her five years ago, and had planned a trip to visit Timberline Lodge with her – knowing that it was far from the most friendly place for someone with significant limitations in mobility. After arriving there, Virginia was bound and determined to revisit most of the places that she knew and loved from long ago. And she did – ascending and descending stairs that we thought would stop her.

When we asked her how she was able to do all that she did without assistance, she said with a twinkle in her eye, a smile, and a hint of the pain she was undoubtedly experiencing: “Oh, I save up my energy for those things that are really special.”

And again: Well.

While we have lost Virginia’s physical presence, her spirit and her indomitable energy will always be with us. We owe it to her to find and express our spirit and our energy, and to teach our families and students and colleagues how to be so engaged, and so part of the world as was Virginia Jean Cory.

24 August 2012

Going Home

Home is moving with the motion of Delta Flight 1664, as Graham and I are respectively in Seats 6 and 5 D. We’re somewhere over Michigan, and Aimee Mann’s “I’m with Stupid” is entertaining me as I write this. Tick Tock bin Trouble will need to wait one more day for his human companions to get home.

Virginia died eight days ago. In the last nine days Graham and I have: organized and endured traveling across country; dealt with the disposition of Virginia’s body and remaining personal effects; planned and announced not one funeral but a funeral Mass and a memorial service; learned the difference between a funeral Mass, a funeral Mass with Rosary, a funeral Mass with Eucharist, a memorial service, and random remembrances of the dead; made endless phone calls to people I hadn’t spoken to in years, if ever; fought with the funeral home and the funeral director; ate absurdly good food at some of Portland’s finest restaurants; used Facebook to inform the world of my mother’s life and death; broken a quarantine of my mother’s community to have a punk rock memorial service lead by an 83 year old Benedictine priest; greeted and consoled more than a hundred mourners; visited Mt. Hood and Hood River; and occasionally slept.
I’m confident that none of the above can be described as grieving.

There’s more to do closing out the details of Virginia’s life. There’s a life of our own to resume – reboot, even – as my mother’s increasing infirmity over the last three years had by the end of her life all but consumed our lives.

I know that’s not grieving, either.

Virginia said that her death would allow her to go home. There’s still work for me to do to accept that she’s gone home, and to reorganize life so it can support our home – which is wherever we are.

15 August 2012

“She died peacefully in her sleep.”

I’ve imagined hearing those words for a long time about my mother. I’ve wanted to hear those words. Frankly, anyone who loves a friend or family member or spouse should want to hear those words.

I woke up to those words this morning. Racing against my mother’s failing strength and will, the cumulative delays of travel kept me from reaching her side before she died.

I have no remorse, guilt, or regret at not being at her side when VJC died. For the last five years, we’ve agreed that every time we said good-bye might well be the last time we would see each other. Living in where we did, with lives that we loved, meant that it would take extraordinary luck to be in the same place at the moment of her death. Having said good-bye last Thursday, and spoken on Sunday afternoon, there was no sense of anything left unsaid by either of us. We touched, we connected, we parted physically, but never emotionally or spiritually.

For every time my mother asked and cadged at moving from Oregon to Washington, DC to be closer to Graham and me (and the prompts were frequent, unrealistic, and not intended to produce any result but more frequent visits to her), fear of being alone at the moment of her death was not ever discussed or hinted at as a reason to move closer. Both Virginia and I knew that regardless of the cause, her natural death was likely to happen quietly and without us being present.

Virginia’s death happened as we both thought it would: it was quiet, peaceful, and painless.

Given her dementia and lung cancer, a quiet, peaceful, and painless death could not be guaranteed. I’m grateful to the medical and social support team from Silverton Hospital, Willamette Valley Hospice, and Mt. Angel Towers who worked with both Virginia and me – and with whom Virginia occasionally crossed swords – and who made the last six months of my mother’s life as safe, secure, and satisfying as possible. Their effort and compassion and skill allowed me to keep living as my mother was dying.

My grieving began in February, and felt strained and extended as I previously wrote. With my mother’s death, I can now grieve in earnest, knowing she is at rest and at peace. And I will grieve, but at the same time am truly grateful that my mother is at rest and peace, on her terms, surrounded by spirits of friends and family who have preceded her in death.

Rest in peace, Virginia Jean Kuehner Fusick Cory.

June 7th, 1923 – August 15th, 2012.

14 August 2012

The price of grief

Virginia Jean Kuehner Cory has been dying for a while, now. We all are dying, but the imminence of death differs for each human and living creature. In my mother’s case, the sense that death is close first became manifest last year. Somehow, somehow, the sense that living mattered disappeared from her, and she shifted from grasping life – mind you, with limitations – to existing. When a trip to Silverton Hospital in February 2012 lead to a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer and post-ischematic dementia, it confirmed the sense that Virginia’s dance through life was to end, and end soon.

But this isn’t about her. This is about me, and how my mother’s impending death costs me, and how it affects the way I see the world.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross brought grief as a process to us in “On Death and Dying.” I grew up with that book, knowing that as an only child I would have to face the deaths of my parents at some point, and that loss would be incredibly painful. My father’s death was unexpected, unfortunate, and untimely, but was also fairly conventional in its course and duration. Grief presented itself, I endured it, and it passed, with much of what passes for “normalcy” in the processes of grieving.

My experience with my mother has been entirely other. It’s far from unique – I’ve heard from friends and colleague of similar stories with their parents and grandparents. I’ve watched and walked with other friends through similar grieving with their friends and parents.

What makes this long grieving hard is that you’re constantly giving – giving one’s time, routine, and hope. There are small and great comforts along the way. For me, it’s been seeing Virginia happy when we’re together on drives in the country and walks around the grounds of Mt. Angel Towers.

At the same time, the loss of other things we’ve shared – talking about politics and society, enjoying art, books, food, and music together, and causing all sorts of trouble – feels like a void for me. I know my mother is now beyond those things. And in a real sense, I’m grateful that she is beyond them, as being aware and perceptive enough to engage at that level would mean she is equally aware of her disease, and the diminution of her life and body.

But there’s a part of me that longs for being able to call her and hear her rant on the sordid spectacle of modern United States politics, or complain about how nursing as a profession has been ruined by the use of computers. I want to get in a car with her and go to the downtown Portland Nordstrom’s, shop for shoes and clothes, and go to lunch afterward. I want her to complain that I’m driving too fast.

One of Virginia’s friends recently told me that my mother was at peace, and was much happier as her dementia and cancer progressed. Which is fine, except that I’m most decidedly not at peace with the loss of the woman and mother that I know and love.

The price of this grieving – this constant giving up – is that there isn’t anything to replace what’s lost, at least in the short term. The small and large kindnesses and grace that I’ve encountered can’t fill the growing void that the cumulative loss creates. Yes, the balm of love and thoughts and prayers help – but they’re a balm, allowing me to keep going without ultimately healing.

What may be the highest price is that I’ve stopped growing, and stopped moving forward. I’m desperate not to get pulled into the growing void, and must keep running not to fall in – even when I have not energy to do so.

03 July 2012

Virginia Jean Kuehner Cory News

Dear Friends and Family,

You may not have heard from Virginia Cory for some time – and knowing my mother’s love of connection and correspondence, that would be of concern to all of you. I can offer a simple explanation of a long and too-familiar story.

Virginia was diagnosed in late February 2012 with late stage lung cancer and moderate dementia after a series of falls and trips to the emergency room. The last several months have seen her move within her Mt. Angel Towers community from independent to assisted living, and to begin hospice care to provide her comfort and assistance as she faces the challenges of the progression of both cancer and dementia.

 In consultation with her care team, including her hospice advocates from Willamette Valley Hospice, I wanted to let you all know that Virginia is doing well, continues her daily routine of attending Mass and participating in some of the many activities of Mt. Angel Towers, and is reasonably comfortable.

Virginia’s dementia slowly manifested its effects to us. Like many older adults who maintain active lives well into their 80s, Virginia bridged her cognitive gaps with a structured daily regimen that allowed her to continue her daily activities with few signs of the extent of her cognitive impairment.

However, beginning in 2009, Virginia began to loose the ability to respond to new situations, including responding to correspondence. I was able to help her with some of the issues, including managing her finances and medical care remotely with the assistance of her health care team and effective powers of attorney. Her impairment progressed to the point that Virginia could no longer interact with her health care team without my assistance – and we all had to find ways to accommodate her changing cognitive profile.

What I couldn’t help was with the day-to-day communications and interactions with you. I’ve only recently become aware of how profound her limits are with regard to responding to written correspondence.

You may wish to contact Virginia, and I encourage you to do so – nothing makes her happier than to connect with the people with whom she shared so much. But I want to offer a few suggestions and cautions.

 Please understand that receiving, comprehending, and responding to written correspondence is very challenging for Virginia; her short-term memory loss doesn’t allow her to process and act on cards and letters she receives from her friends and family. While she enjoys receiving cards, please don’t expect a written response.

She can receive telephone calls, and is happy chatting with people; however, she may need your assistance and patience with helping her to remember who you are and your relationship with her.

Virginia loves to see people who she knows, and can receive visitors in her room at the Health Center of Mt. Angel Towers. If you happen to be near Silverton or Mt. Angel, please feel free to stop by and say hello. Again, she may need you to help remind her of your relationship, and may have gaps in her memory of your shared experiences.

I will be posting periodic updates on Virginia’s health both on my personal blog (scory.blogspot.com) and on my Facebook page (facebook.com/scott.cory).

Thanks to all for the love and compassion and experiences you’ve shared with Virginia (and me) through many years.

09 June 2012

Random thoughts above North America, 9 June 2012 Edition

The last four months have brought new meaning to “overload.”

Working to maintain a parent’s dignity as they face physical and cognitive crises at the end of life isn’t something you’re taught how to do. And you either do it, or you don’t.

When that challenge is combined with a work environment which is every bit as venal and guileful as a Borgia or Medici palazzo, there really isn’t much more you can do but work like hell through the week and curl up and cocoon on the weekends.

Pottery and gardening help, too, as do good Rhône reds.

Whatever glamour remained in air travel has been evaporated and remains like the thin crust found in a dried-out perfume bottle.

Bumping, shaking, and shuddering at more than 450 miles per hour through cumulonimbus clouds more than 40,000 feet tall is no way to spend a June afternoon. The ominous squeaking from some part of the cabin doesn’t help, either.

Mark Eitzel’s “60 Watt Silver Lining” may well be my favorite album from the 1990s. “Track me down and I’ll give you /my pomegranate heart” is just one of the images that sticks with me. Not to mention production values that rival Steely Dan’s “Aja” and stunning performances by Eitzel, Vudi, and Mark Isham.

 The tomatoes have already bloomed and set fruit at home. And there will be lots more before frost stops the harvest.

 I’m so disgusted by the politics of this electoral cycle that I can’t bear to listen to or watch the news. The foreign press, and a limited segment of the blogosphere are the only sources I can rely on without causing nausea or threatening damage to the physical object producing the sound or image.

Thinking about discussions of exsanguinations due to aortic rupture is disconcerting to say the least. When the discussion is about someone you love, it’s even more disconcerting. When the discussion leads to purchase of supplies to cope with said possible exsanguinations, it’s neither disconcerting, macabre, or terrifying, but instead is practical.

How many more of these cross-country sprints will we make before VJC dances off this mortal coil?

06 May 2012

Gnome Water

The perfect spring drink, other than lavender infused vodka lemonade.

1 1/2 ounces Hendrick’s Gin
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1ounce cucumber juice
1ounce fresh lime and lemon juice
1 tablespoon lavender syrup
Soda water

Pour first five ingredients into a cocktail shaker, give a quick roll, then pour into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top with soda water.

21 March 2012

Random Thoughts from 38,000 feet above Eastern Oregon

“Aquas de Março” may well be my favorite song.  If there is an afterlife, Tom Jobim and Joni Mitchell will hang out, smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey.

Business class transforms travel from horrifying to tolerable. 

When one’s parents are gravely ill, the question of how to be good to them is the most important thing in the world.  The danger is to know when and how to protect against consuming one’s being.

It’s very nice to have enough underwear so as not to worry about having to do laundry between unplanned trips

Since 2005, my Aunt Monica and my father have died.  Edith Throckmorton died.  Edie Mulholland died.  Bill Martin died.  Edith Stiles died.  There are others, some close, some distant – but they’re related by age.  The “Greatest Generation” is fading quickly.  In a very real sense, my mother’s impending death will close a chapter in our lives.  What chapter opens next will be fascinating.

Having discussed very painful decisions about terminal illnesses and end-of-life issues with my mother over the last 30 years has made the last month much easier.  Executing the decisions is relatively easy.  Catching up with the emotions is quite a different story.  No, in fact I’m not all right.   Thanks for asking.

How did I ever travel without a laptop?  And what will it be like to travel with a tablet as powerful and capable as my laptop?

I miss the smell and touch of Graham and Tick Tock bin Trouble.  I am a pack animal.  Who knew?

On being a good son to a dying mother

My mother is dying.  Not that any of us will live forever, barring the “rapture for nerds.”  My mother is 88, has moderate dementia, and has recently been diagnosed as having a large mass in her chest, most likely cancerous.  I can’t tell you that with 100% confidence, because my mother slapped the radiology technician assisting with her biopsy, thus immediately ending the procedure and delaying a definitive diagnosis of lung cancer. 

But we know enough to know that my mother is dying, and is likely to die sooner, rather than later. 

What I’m struggling with is how to be a good son to my dying mother.  I know how to do many things, with various degrees of comfort and competence.  I can, with fluency and grace, coordinate the IT policy of a major Federal agency.  I do a passable job as partner to the love of my life.  I rock wearing really good suits, and know my way around menus and wine lists like no one’s business.  I’m an OK friend, and a not particularly good godfather (yes, that’s my assessment of what I’ve done for you, Cord). 

The problem is, for me: what can and should I do for Virginia Jean Kuehner Fusick Cory? 

I’ve established her care goals as being “providing comfort and reducing confusion,” know that my mother’s tolerance for discomfort and change is shrinking every day.  I’ve tried to bring the right people together to ensure that she’s doing what she needs to do every day, and that she can’t badger, bully, or plead her way out of doing what she may not want to do. 

So – I’m flying once again to Oregon, trying to get sorted my mother’s collapsing world.  After having a episode with wheezing and shortness of breath which lead to an ER visit and a hospital admission, my mother will move from the apartment in which she has lived independently for the last 10 years to an assisted living room.  I know there will be tears, and complaint, and resistance, but the only way I can ensure that my mother’s days are comfortable and create minimal confusion for her is to provide round the clock supervision for her.  Without that, her chances of having an injurious fall are certain.  Without that, her failure to medicate or refuse medication would lead to more trips to the ER and hospital.  Without that, my guilt is unbearable.

I do know that I can’t do this myself.  This is work that has to be shared with the team – the professionals who understand how to provide care to the elderly, and how to work with the families of the elderly, and with my family and friends, who know how to tell me what I need to do, and when I’m trying to do too much. 

In the end, I want to make sure that I’m able to do for my mother at the end of her life what she and my father did for me at the beginning of my life:  keep me safe, keep me warm, and let me feel loved.  And if I can do that, I will have been a good son to a dying mother.

26 February 2012

Random Thoughts from 33,760 feet above Kansas

I will always be grateful for Louis Vega and Kenny Dope’s “The Bomb” and “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun.”

Working 80 hour weeks and giving up one’s life isn’t sustainable or satisfying, no matter how much money you’re making.

Travel planned and executed at the last minute always costs a lot and is rarely satisfying, regardless of the purpose of the travel or the class of the accommodations.

Graham’s right:  “Another Green World” sounds like music for trans-human Morris dancing.

Dithering can make for good blogging, and even better tweeting.

The older I get, the more I miss the comforts of home.

The older I get, the more I need to clean house before I leave for travel.

LCD Soundsystem’s “All I Want” and Brian Eno’s “Over Fire Island/St. Elmo’s Fire” are written from exactly the same place, 30 years apart.

I’ve been flying in airplanes for 46 years.  Familiarity breeds contempt.  First world problems, I know. 

For almost 20 years, I’ve bought a copy of Automobile, the Economist, and Vanity Fair before any flight.  It’s been an almost fetishistic ritual.  I’ve changed it now, and buy Automobile and the Harvard Business Review.  I can’t explain why I’ve changed the ritual.

Watching 15 minutes of “Jersey Shore” on the seatback feed made me feel real shame for humanity and a desire to erase New Jersey from my experience and family history.

Even at 50, I occasionally amuse myself with the thought of having children with Graham (minds out of the gutter, people.)  I know I’m old enough to be a grandfather already.  I don’t think I can pull off a Jack Donaghy, and I’m pretty sure that I’d regularly find myself in a white hot rage dealing with the issues Washington-area parents regularly deal with.

I’m less and less interested in white tablecloth, full service restaurants, and more satisfied by imaginative, well prepared food in modest surroundings.  Portland rocks that trope hard: Kenny and Zuke’s, Bunk Sandwich, Le Pigeon, Beast all come to mind.

My rental car is an SUV.  It was cheaper – by far – than a hybrid.  Don’t hate me.

Whatever happened to MC Solaar?  Ya gotta love Senegalese rappers name-checking Fred Astaire and Reddy Kilowatt, and sampling Public Enemy.