Tag Archives: death

Two Sides to Every Story

Over the years, as I’ve developed an understanding of my faith in God, I have regularly been confronted by fundamental religion as an extreme.  Whether it be the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other faith, orthodoxy has alluded me.  The question that regularly rises to my mind is, “How can anyone be so sure of anything?”  I now find myself on the other end of the question, “How can anyone be so sure God doesn’t exists?”

A young man, who is like a nephew to me, recently became an atheist chaplain at a major metropolitan teaching hospital. Although this may seem like an oxymoron at first blush, after discussion with him, I, along with the head of the department for chaplains, realized this makes perfect sense. His belief in science and free-thinking is as strong as that of the orthodox individuals I know.  The fascinating part for me is that I am now the one with the belief in a god that someone else cannot imagine exists.  Agnosticism, at least, allows for the possibility for a god, as long as there is proof that this entity exists.  Atheism, however, offers no possibility for the existence of a supreme deity, and thereby a relationship with that deity is not an option.  His belief system is not my belief system; however, it is one with which I am extremely familiar.  My father was an atheist most of the time, or an agnostic, depending on when you spoke with him.  Dad and I had many animated, sometimes vitriolic, conversations about God.

As I look to my nephew, I see a peacefulness about him that I cannot understand.  To my spirit, I cannot help but question how it is possible for someone to believe in nothing smaller than a quark or lepton, neither of which I understand at all, and nothing bigger than the universe.  The only thing I know is that I love this young fellow and know that if this is the path he’s chosen, then it necessarily must be right for him. Although they never push their belief systems on me, I know my friends look at me with perplexed wonder at how a person reared as a Roman Catholic could have such an omni denominational faith.  Inasmuch as my loving fundamental Christian friends would rejoice if I said I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, I know I would be happy if Noel would find a faith in something larger than space. Perhaps, though, this might not be all together true.  Would I want for him what he doesn’t want or feel he needs for himself?  No.

The spiritual universe I sense informs my awareness that we are each responsible for our own lives, accountable only to ourselves and to our creator, whomever that may be… if any, given the belief system.  So, how could I ask him to believe differently than his ethical and moral system tells him is right?  I can’t.  What I do know is that as he pursues his chaplaincy, he will encounter other systems of belief and faith that are not consistent with his own.  That is why I gave him my thanatological research regarding death and dying in many traditions to supplement his already wide breadth of knowledge.  The gifts he has as a vital part of a support system and as loving human being in the benefit of other people will be best illuminated by his knowledge of others’ traditions; even those he doesn’t espouse.  He then can speak their language while remaining true to his own convictions.  This is compassion. This in intelligence used on a personal level.  This is my nephew.

I am very proud of this bright, joyful young man.  He is a unique and very funny individual who brings rich laughter and deep thought wherever he goes.  I know those he counsels, the individuals who are ill and dying, and their families, will benefit from his presence in unimaginable ways.  They will remember his tender heart and brilliant mind, and the comfort he brings, long after their difficult journeys have passed.

Good luck, Noel.  I am very proud of you!

The Death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian

Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his Death Machine

It’s strange somehow to hear that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died.  It’s like hearing that Sara Lee ate cake or Les Schwab had his car repaired.  One rarely thinks that those who work in a field actually experience their work as a customer as well.   Jack Kevorkian advocated for individuals to have the right to terminate their lives with the help of a physician if both feel their quality of life is at such a low level as to make that life no longer livable.  He not only promoted this idea, but participated in physician-assisted suicides many time.  Kevorkian had guidelines for this choice; however, they were much more liberal than any state’s that has passed legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide.

My father, a pharmacist and brilliant man, agreed with Dr. Kevorkian.  After many conversations with Dad about Dr. Kevorkian and his beliefs, I know that Dad believed that if a person’s life did not meet the standards of quality he or she desired, or if an individual had a condition that would cause deterioration of his or her body or mind, the person should be able to choose death instead of suffering.  He also believed that a physician had a responsibility to assist those who could not take their own lives if the patient chose to do so.

My father had a challenge with the chemistry in his brain that caused his mental faculties to progressively diminish.  After his death, we discovered that his condition could have been remediated with medication, but my father did not want to be on that type of medication for the rest of his life.  I suspect he knew the side effects would leave him different from the person he was before.  The problem was that he had already changed dramatically, but because of his condition he could not recognize those changes.  He honestly thought he was the same person he had always been.  He was wrong.  He had become paranoid, angrier, and posed a threat to himself and others.  He made rash decisions and often spoke with vitriol when he felt slighted or ignored.  We felt we could not discuss this with most people as it would further damage my father’s reputation.   The community he served so loyally, respectfully, and compassionately over the years wanted nothing to do with my father as he grew more unpredictable and unpleasant. Our family understood their response, although it hurt us very much nonetheless.

Floyd and James Glica in the 1980s

Dad read Kevorkian’s book and learned about the options for suicide should his life take a negative turn.  In 1999, my father’s worst fears became a reality.  As his mental deterioration continued, our family decided we had to make a decision about placing him in a facility for his own safety and the safety of others.  He was trying to buy a gun to protect himself from people he was certain were trying to kill him.  No one was trying to kill my father.  No one at all.  Although we tried very hard to keep our plans from him, through an error at his physician’s office he found out.  After a great deal of planning, on July 30, 1999, my father drove to a secluded spot in the mountains around his home, put a hose from the exhaust pipe to the back of his covered truck bed, started the car, climbed into the back of his truck, and there, alone, died from carbon monoxide poisoning. I suspect Dad chose this method to die because he read that this type of death was painless and fairly quick.  In his meticulous planning, he sent a note to my mother that day telling her where he could be found. The next day, when the letter arrived in the mail at my aunt’s house where I had sent Mom to ensure her safety, Mom had the police and two of our closest friends go to the spot Dad described.  He was there, dead, no gas left in the GM truck, and his mission accomplished. He did not want to live a life that was less than he dreamed.  What Dad couldn’t see is that his death, let alone in this fashion, was not what we had dreamed either.

As Kevorkian lay in his hospital bed dying, surrounded by those he loved, listening to the classical music he so dearly enjoyed, I wonder if he thought about the lives he changed in which he may not have actively participated, but inspired nonetheless.  I wonder if he understood the anguish of the parents, spouses, children, and siblings who have to deal with the choices these individuals made.  It’s not Kevorkian’s fault certainly, but, at least in my father’s case, he played a role in my father’s choice.

In my faith tradition, suicide has spiritual consequences with which I, for one, would not choose to engage.  I recognize that not everyone agrees with me on this topic.  My father clearly did not agree.  Neither did Jack Kevorkian.  Although I’ve actively cared for people at the end stages of their lives due to cancer and other conditions, I do not claim to understand the depth of agony individuals experience at the end of protracted and savage illnesses. I can say that I understood from the outset why my father chose as he did, but it didn’t help ease the grief for us, especially for my mother.

The irony, of course, is that Kevorkian recently said that he was not ready to die yet because he still had missions to fulfill in his life.  One might contemplate whether a part of Kevorkian’s karma is dying with his life ending unfulfilled.  Perhaps for families like ours was in 1999, his unfulfilled missions are our blessing.

Plaque commemorating the site where my father died.

Last Few Minutes of the Game

Texas Longhorn receiver, Quan Cosby in last seconds of the game.Whenever we see a sporting event or theatrical production, the last few minutes of the experience are so powerful.  The teams are battling for supremecy, the last push is thrashed for the big win, or the 11:oo o’clock song is sung.  It’s the finale, so everyone expects things to be big, dramatic, and utterly memorable.

Life is like that, too.  When we are closing in on the final days or minutes of our lives, our life experiences become phenomenally intense.

In the month preceeding my father’s suicide, he began scurrying all over California, trying to find a place to call home where he felt safe.  His mental illness and paranoia was taking over and we, as his family, had to make decisions that would protect him and those around him, including my mother.  There were battles and accusations, pleas and vitriol spewed everywhere as we tried to resolve these issues.

Ultimately, Dad decided how things were going to go and killed himself  in the back of his truck using carbon monoxide from the exhaust pipe.

When Mama was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer six years later, she seemed fairly resigned to her fate.  She was, after all, 83 years old and ready to be with my father. 

The strange thing is that the night before she died, she grew very impatient and angry.  She wasn’t able to communicate because her lungs had filled up with fluid from the cancer and she was incredibly weak because she hadn’t be able to eat for four weeks.  I gave her some medication to calm her down and she went to sleep.  I will never know what it was she was trying to communicate because she died during the night.

When my son and grandbaby were lost to miscarriages, the intensity was overwhelming for everyone.  With my son, my then-girlfriend and I were 15 years old, far too young to be parents.  With my grandchild, my daughter’s grandmother had died only days before.  In both instances, the turmoil surrounding the pregnancies carried dynamics that these precious children couldn’t bear. 

Even my former mother-in-law asked a fascinating question as she lie dying in her hospital bed.  She and I were unusually close, considering that my ex-wife and I had been divorced for 22 years.  She asked, “Jim, what do you think it’s like after we die?”

This amazingly strong woman was 71 years old and was asking me this question.  It was a profoundly powerful moment of intimacy between us. 

“I think that there is an afterlife and it is whatever we believe it will be.  I believe it will be loving and joyful if that’s where our hearts are.  It will be cold and lonely if that’s how we view our lives.”

“How do we know when we’re going to die?” she queried.

“When we are free from fear and ready.” I responded.

As she pondered what I had said, I saw her looking around her hospital room into the faces of her loving daughters and granddaughters. 

“I’m ready.  Let’s pray.” she said.  So, we all joined hands and began praying out loud.  Then, the room grew silent.  After nearly ten minutes, Mother-in-law-dearest, which is what I always called her, opened her eyes.

“I’m still here?”  We all broke out into ribald laughter.

The next morning, quietly and peacefully, she joined those who had gone before her.

One of my former students, who lost her life at 21 years old in an automobile accident, knew at her inner most level, if not consciously, that she was not long for this lifestream.  Her poetry, music, and prayers all were clear pictures of that truth.  We all missed the messages because we either weren’t ready to hear them or we weren’t supposed to hear them.  The preparation experience apparently was for her alone.

There are times when we do see it coming. 

When my brother, my family, and I were sitting around the table eating the day my mother died, after a discussion about his alcoholism and desire to be alone, my family and I knew that David would be gone within the year.  Sadly, it only took him four months to transition into his new existence.  The signs were there.  His awareness was there.  He was clearly ready.  We were simply able to see it.  Even with that clarity, there was nothing we could do to prevent him dying from his alcoholism.

Life is intense and full of meaning.  Death is no different. 

Our fears and our joys are amplified as we approach our final time.  It’s remarkable how many times one has heard, “He said he loved me in a way that was so much more intimate the night before he died.”   There had been no warning or omen.  There had been no disease or chronic illness.  He was just aware at his spiritual core that he had to say good-bye and mean it.

As I watched my cousin deal with his own demise this week, I realized that his battle has only begun, although it is likely to last only a few more weeks.  Like my mother, his aunt, he is dying of pancreatic cancer.  He is only 50 years old.

His children and girlfriend are also trying to make sense of what makes no sense at all. 

I hope they all find peace in this process and can say good-bye in a loving, healthy way, as a unified family.  It will make a difference to all of them, my cousin included. 

I’ve experienced 46 deaths of people close to me in my lifetime.  Each of their lives have changed who I am.  They have made a difference.  My cousin has made a difference in my life.  The weight of their absence is great.  The silence of their voices nearly painful.  Yet, the love they’ve given and the love they’ve let me share is what I hold onto now.  It’s all I have left.

Now, as your shot clock winds down, as the last few pages of your score are sung, I wish you “Good journey!” Joe.  Bravo, Cousin, for a life fully lived.  I love you.  I will miss you.  Thank you for changing my life with your love.


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Hurry! Hurry! Walmart is Selling Coffins!

Well, we have just entered an entirely new phase of commercialism in the United States of America when Walmart™ begins selling caskets. 

Dozens-of-wooden-coffins--001I was wondering how Walmart™ markets the new caskets they’re selling? I went on a journey through their website today, trying to figure out how to find these, what turned out to be, elusive caskets.

I started with Outdoor Living.  I got the “outdoor” part right, I was sure, but the “living” part proved to be the deal breaker.  Not there.

Furniture?  Were they in the Furniture section?  Alas, they were not there.  Apparently, furniture is something one keeps in the home for people who are alive to use.  Who knew?

Clearly, Health and Beauty, and Sports and Fitness would not qualify as categories in which I could turn to find these sneaky boxes.  Although I had read in reputable papers that Walmart was indeed selling coffins, I simply couldn’t find them.

I turned to the For the Home section. 

michael-collins-lying-in-state-with-sean-collinsNow, clearly, caskets are not meant for the home.  I do recall, however, my mother telling me that when people died when she was young, the dead were placed in their coffins in the family’s living room so people could come and pay their respects.  Grandpa would lie in state, awaiting Aunt Beulah and Uncle Chuck to come by, and say how peaceful he looked.  Mom, however, was born in 1922, and I knew that most of the time, this simply was no longer done.

The people at Walmart™, though, seemed to remember these days of yore, after all.  Cheating a little bit, I entered the word, “Casket,” into the search field.  There, in what appeared to be the For the Home section, I found my prize.  A list of inexpensive and, on screen, lovely memorials to a family’s departed loved one. 

So, I knew the caskets were there, but there was still something missing.  Which section in For the Home were these caskets listed.  I still didn’t know.  I began my search to see where they were located.

I started with Storage and Organization.  It seemed reasonable to me that anything that would hold one item for eternity would certainly be called storage.  Surprisingly, the caskets were not there.

I briefly checked Health and Beauty, but I knew they wouldn’t be there.  Health is the antithesis of death, and beauty, well, Aunt Beulah did say Grandpa looked peaceful.  No, though, they weren’t in Health and Beauty.  I even took a detour into Personal Care as someplace I thought might be a good section.  What is more personal than selecting a resting place for a loved one?  Even here, though, there was nothing about my intended subject.

Were these boxes in Gifts and Celebrations?  After all, in the Roman Catholic Church in which I was reared, we were always told that the mass was celebrated.  Perhaps, a funeral was like that, too.  Nothing.  I guess the people at Walmart™ weren’t Catholic.

Possibly in either the Luggage or Mattresses sections, I could find what I was looking for.  Packing forever?  Lying around forever?  Nope.  No go.

Would I find them in the Appliances section with the dryers and steam irons?  What product more closely resembles a coffin than a refrigerator, after all?  Of course, they weren’t there, but I had to look nonethess.  I did, however, find a lovely mixer I now have my eye on; but, I digress.

Depending on how one feels about the dearly departed, I suppose one might place the caskets in the Home Improvement section; but, overall, I doubt it.

Finally, I realized that the caskets were under the heading, Funerals.  Funerals is not something one will find on the home page at Walmart™.  One must enter the text into the search box to find the objects for which one is looking.  I could have looked all day long, I think, and never found Funerals or Caskets listed.  I had to make that little extra effort.  I wasn’t able to avoid confronting the thought that people who were currently grieving would have to go through this same process at a time they were least able to do so.

How is it that something so intimate and horrific can be sold at Walmart™?  They will never carry them in the stores, amongst the picture frames and linens, so the only way one can purchase them is on-line. 

Is it possible that we can now mail order death products like this at a time when we are most vulnerable and in need of human contact?  A human being’s physical remains will reside in this container for the rest of time.  It just seems improbable that we have gotten to this point in life to be able to acquire their interment box without ever speaking to one human being about it. 

officers_wife_mournsPeople are forced to have car washes and yard sales to raise the money for burying the people they love.  The funeral marketplace has become so expensive that Average Joe America simply can’t afford to have anyone in their family die.  So, Walmart™, in their infinite wisdom, has taken up the slack. 

My feelings about all of this does not detract from the fact that they have some lovely, more affordable caskets, including ones that say, “Mother,” and “Father,” and have images of American flags, roses, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.   That’s not the issue.

My concern is that we often wonder out loud why our children are becoming so disconnected and desensitized to death and dying?  We ask ourselves why we don’t value life more?  I think this recent news about Walmart™ speaks volumes to those questions.  Although, I know how necessary this is to offset the exorbitant costs of death, for some reason, this new turn in American commercialism makes me so very sad and lonely.

Which “Good Night” Would That Be?

Do not go gentle into that good night [A Villanelle]


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
 And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Dylan Thomas, 1951 or 1952

Diego WaitingIn this dynamic and oft-quoted poem, Thomas talks about those who have created lives that defy death until the very end.  In one way or another, these people have revoked the truth of natural law until that time that the universal heirophant commands otherwise. 

It appears the rage starts now.  After watching, on average, one significant death a year for the last fifty years of my life, I’m getting angry.  Although I am a man of vivid faith and peaceful gratitude for every event of my life, I am still finding myself trying to put the brakes on death; that of others and of my own. 

While there were no deaths some years and several in others, I am finding that the number of those I love who are moving onto the next leg of their journeys are increasing incrementally.  Each death reminds me of my own mortality.  I am feeling an immediacy and intimacy of my own mortality the likes of which I have never felt before, even considering I’ve had a heart attack and two strokes. 

I am finding myself trying to leave a thumbprint on everything I possibly can because my fear, in all its immaturity and mendacity, is screaming, “If you don’t make your mark now, you will be forgotten after you are gone.” 

I’ve lost someone in every level of the seven generations that have been alive in my lifetime, from my great-great grandfather Lorenzo Herrera, to my unborn grandchild, Ana’s third baby.  Having watched seven generations of my family impacted by death has taken its toll, to be quite honest.  I have learned that nothing on this planet is permanent.  I have learned that no one is exempt from “that good night,” to which Dylan Thomas so eloquently refers.

And, yes, I am raging, raging at the dying of my own light.  As my eyes become burned by the darkening of time on my lower lids, as the edge of my lips turn down from the force of gravity and the loss of elasticity in my skin and vivacity, as my chest and belly and ass descend on the ladder of old age, I am still raging.  I fight this battle through my creativity.  I engage this war by loving anew every single day.  I revolt against the flickering lights around me by lifting others, younger, more vibrant others, into their own sense of artistry and self. 

My logical mind tells me that my body will close up shop one day.  My brain function will flat-line.  My heart will turn dark brown from a lack of oxygen.  My sacred vessel will cease to be necessary.  I understand that.  I accept that.  At some level, I even celebrate that because it will be a testament to the fact that I have completed my work here on Earth.

I am valiantly hoping that my innermost peace and spiritual ferocity both come from the ultimate truth that I will not be forgotten, even after everyone I have ever known is gone.  After my literary words have faded and the paint I have embued on my canvasses have crumbled, after my music is no longer audible and my children and grandchildren are dead, the truth on which I must focus with clarity and purpose is that I will always be remembered by God.

Rindy’s Connectivity Explosion

BlueThere was once a shampoo commercial that said, “…she tells two people, and they tell two people and so on, and so on…”  By the end of the commercial, the screen was filled with seemingly hundreds of tiny faces, each connected to one another from that first person with clean hair. 

This last week has been just that kind of week.  Our best friends’ daughter, and my former student dating back to 2001, Rindy Sumners, died as a result of injuries received in an horrific traffic accident on Wednesday, August 26, 2009.  This death has left me numb, incredibly busy helping the family, and struggling to find peace in the midst of the undercurrent of my chaotic emotions. 

Rindy was an amazing young woman, whose intense vitality was matched only by her inability to know just how much she was admired, loved and respected.  At twenty-one years old, Rindy had continued working toward a successful songwriting and singing career that had begun as a small child, banging out notes on her little electric organ her father bought her and dancing around the house singing all the time. 

KeyboardHer freckled nose and startlingly blue eyes gave the impression, even in adulthood, of a young girl; however, this was a motivated, dynamic woman who knew her goals, grew her faith, and struggled with her most intimate relationships.  Rindy’s foundation was her parents.  Rick and Sandy each offered their unique gifts to their daughter in significantly different ways. 

Rick, an ambitious man, whose passion for music imbued Rindy with that same historical desire for performance and creativity.  Rindy was the third generation professional musician in her father’s family.  Bob Sumners was a founding member of the chart-topping Axidentals in the 1950’s and 1960’s.   Rick, known professionally as Rick Dean, has performed as part of a rock band and as a solo artist since the 1970’s.  Rick’s brother, Randy, was a professional musician and composer in his own right before his death in the 1990’s.  Rindy came by her talent honestly and she truly made the most of it.  Her prolific composition, as well as performance has been a compelling musical force in every creative community in which she engaged.

RSR 4Sandy, on the other hand, was Rindy’s touchstone at every point.   The relationship between these two was beyond understanding.  They spoke without words.  They relished their shared spiritual gifts and love of friends and family.  Sandy made sure Rindy had everything she needed on a day-to-day basis while Rick provided the overarching motivation to focus on her goals and get the job done.  It was a magical symphony of love, discipline, laughter, and abundance.

When Rindy died, we completed the obligatory tasks required of every family when someone they love passes into the next leg of their journey.  One of those tasks was creating an obituary.  As one can imagine,  Rick and Sandy were simply too distraught to write this obituary.  That job fell to me and I was honored to write the sad message to our greater Sacramento community.

It was published in the Sacramento Bee, reprinted on Facebook and MySpace, and shared on the telephone from one friend to another.  Her family always knew that Rindy had an immense impact on those around her, but they were to find out just how far reaching her touch had been.

From the day Rindy died, we had only four days to prepare a memorial service for our lost songbird.  In those four days, programs were printed, the venue was selected, the pastors were conferred, and the video presentation was completed.  It was a rigorous series of responsibilities that many of us shared to get to Sunday. 

When we were discussing the number of chairs that we should set up and the number of programs to print, we figured between 250 and 300 would be more than adequate to accommodate everyone who wished to attend.  It wasn’t too long before Facebook entries and MySpace comments gave us a good indication that Rindy’s memorial was going to be more than we expected.  Finally we determined that the number of chairs to be set was 350.  That number would last only until Sunday morning when we added another fifty chairs. 

RindyAs the memorial began at 2:00 PM, Sunday, August 30, 2009, the same day that Rindy was supposed to give a concert, Pastor Scott Hagan gave his opening remarks to an assemblage of over 500 people.  The number, for us, was staggering.  Family had come from all over the country.  Fellow students from as early as first grade were present.  Friends of friends who had heard Rindy perform or knew of her by her reputation chose to be involved in bidding this angel good-bye.

Four days was all it took for the greater Sacramento and Woodland communities to come together to love Rindy all the way to heaven.  It was a profoundly powerful day.

She touched two people, and then two more, and then two more after that; then, they touched two people, and so on, and so on, and so on. 

After the incredible memorial service, and the small family reception afterward, we sat on the Sumners’ back patio, and we wondered what would have happened had we waited one week more before we had the memorial service.  It was beyond our imagination to think how many people would have been in attendance.  Rindy had moved people with her voice, changed their moods with her smile, and elevated their lives with her love and faith.  She was just that powerful; and she was only twenty-one years old.

The post script to this story is that because Rindy was such a prolific songwriter, although never having finished a CD of her music, she had a wealth of material from which to cull her audio production.  Upon her death, there was a concern that the CD would never get finished.  We thought that perhaps if people were willing to provide a gift toward that end, the CD could finally be completed posthumously.  Gifts we did get, one after another.

The final shock was when one of Rindy’s friends wrote to me to say that she had been in discussion with other Sacramento musicians who wanted to put on a free concert to honor Rindy and if the concert-goers wanted to give a gift to the Sumners family to help defray the cost of the CD, all the better.  This would be a RindyFest, so to speak.

James and Rindy 2How is it that a perky, loving, smart little girl who had grown into a dynamic, creative woman could have such a stellar impact in such a short time?   I don’t know.  I just know that I’m very lucky to have been a part of Rindy’s life and that I will miss her very much.  Her music will certainly live on and the love that reached across the country will continue to impact others’ lives for many years to come.    

God bless you, Rindella.  I miss you.  I’m so very proud of you.  Watch over us as we continue our journey here on Earth.  Apparently, you got it right and so your job is now done.  Our is just beginning.

How Stupid Can One Person Be? *Puff Puff*

Our recent collection

Our recent collection

For a person with a moderately good education, keen intuitive insight, abundant knowledge about and access to health care, the question is raised, “How stupid can one person be to continue smoking for forty-one years?”

Since the first introduction of tobacco onto the North American continent, it took over two hundred years for the United States Surgeon General to make his first report on the dangers of smoking.  When Surgeon General Luther R. Terry presented the report, Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General, in 1964, the research that had begun in the 1930’s had culminated in the advisory that there was a “70 percent increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers.”

I began smoking in 1968 at the age of nine-years-old.  At the time, my mother kept a pack of cigarettes in the refrigerator, from which she took an occasional drag.  She was very nearly a non-smoker; however, not quite.  To my young mind, it was so rare that she smoked, she would never remember how many ciggies she had smoked and would assume she would forget one of those times.  In the retrospect of a multi-decade smoker, I realize now that each and every stick is accounted in the mind of the periodic smoker.  It appears Mom assumed Dad, who had a brief history of smoking, took a periodic puff himself. 

I bought my first pack from money I had earned working for my father at eleven-years-old.  I walked to a distant store in south Dunsmuir and told the cashier that my mother wanted a pack of Parliaments, her brand.  I had written a note in my best forgery of her writing requesting permission for me to purchase them for her.  A mini-criminal in a town of 2,400 residents. 

Cigarette holes in my beloved Story & Clark piano keys circa 1970

Cigarette holes in my beloved Story & Clark piano keys circa 1970

Kharma reared its ugly head when, at about that same time, I wanted to be as cool as the singers in the movies and on television.  My mother was at work with my father this one summer day.  I took a cigarette out of its pack, lighted it, and set it on the edge of the piano over the keys.  As I played a cool, jazzy piece on our piano, the cigarette, in all its round construction, rolled off the ledge and landed on what I thought were its ivory keys.  My error was in that the keys were actually made of plastic and melted under the tiny fire-cherry that descended from on-high.   The blackened pits it left in the keys sent me into an emotional tailspin.  I began crying, knowing my mother would have my hide for this transgression.  I finally summoned the wherewithall to figure out that if the keys were plastic, perhaps they could be cleaned like Tupperware.  I got a wet cloth and wiped the holes so they were, at least, no longer black. 

Although my mother was always so aware of everything around her, to her dying day, she never mentioned those pits in the piano keys.  I, of course, never brought them up either.  This cigarette-caused injury can still be seen today on my fifty-plus-year-old piano that continues to reside in my home, a constant reminder of that day nearly four decades before.  

My father was a pharmacist with whom I helped deliver oxygen to former and current smokers suffering from emphysema and lung cancer.  My birthmother and her father both suffered from emphysema and chronic bronchitis.  My former mother-in-law died of lung cancer.  I worked for the California Department of Health Services in the Director’s Office in the 1980’s during the Proposition 99 funding for the anti-smoking campaign.  In fact, I actually reviewed some of the print materials for that campaign. 

I admit those are some significant credentials for a rampant non-smoker.  What does it say that with that huge background, I’m still smoking? 

It’s not that I don’t understand about addiction.  My family has suffered with alcoholism, myself included, drug addiction, food addiction, sex addiction, gambling addiction, and many other very challenging issues.  Yet, here I am, a half-century into my life and still I pick up these poisonous, paper-rolled tobacco products for passionate consumption. 

It’s not as though the media is inundating my consciousness with tobacco ads.  They’re not even legal for the most part.  It’s not like the information isn’t out there.  My health maintenance organization, Kaiser, sends me regular literature on how to quit smoking, as does my personal physician.   This is my daily choice all on my own.

The one time I truly made an effort to quit, I ended up poisoning myself by swallowing the mucky goo being evicted from my lungs.   We always called it lung butter.  I write these words with all their disgusting images attached to clarify just how awful that period was.  I nearly died of phlegm-induced gastroenteritis. 

When will enough be enough?  When will I stop smelling like a filty ashtray?  When will I allow my clothes to carry the aroma of dryer sheets and not burning ashes?  When will I be free of this life-ending addiction.

The truth is that the diagnoses of asthma, chronic bronchitis, and early emphysema, with their accompanying medications, have all been presented to me as current fact.  Ta da!  I have successfully followed in the sad path of my ancestors.  After a mild heart attack at twenty-eight and two strokes in my forties, I still have not mustered the strength to quit.  I do not blame anyone else for this, however, since this has been my doing alone since adulthood. 

The worst part, for me, is the knowledge that under my tutelage, all five of my children began smoking.  Even my granddaughter was affected by smoking when she was born prematurely from what I believe to be partially due to my daughter’s smoking.  

As a teacher of vocal music, my example to my students is poor in regard to proper vocal health.  They all know that I smoke and I am fully aware that my actions have had a much stronger impact on them than the horrifically vivid lectures I gave on the dangers of smoking.

Perhaps, today’s message is a statement that I am close to the switch being thrown toward a cigarette-free existence.  Perhaps, this is simply a drowning man’s panicked gasp.  We’ll see.

For now, however, I’m going out to my lovely poolside lanai for a cigarette.  Stupidly sad, huh?

My First Cronkite Moment

When one asks any person of a “certain age” where they were when they learned President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot, they can, with rare exception, tell you.  Usually that story will include Mr. Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News.   I am no different. 

In November of 1963, I was only four years old.  I used to watch the television in our home in McCloud in the same position every single day, lying on my stomach, about six feet in front of the tube.  The black and white images would flicker by, creating stories and comedy and cartoons for the entertainment of my brother, David, and me.  Of course, David was only two, so he would usually be taking a nap or playing with a toy, except when cartoons were on. 

My very first memory of news on television was that tragic day, November 23, 1963, when we lost our president.  I was born during the Dwight David Eisenhower administration, but was was certainly too young to remember him.   The truth was, I didn’t know who President Kennedy was either, although I had met him once during his whistlestop visit to Dunsmuir during his campaign of 1960.   The photo of that moment was lost many years ago. 

Walter Cronkite, Anchorman, CBS Evening New with Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite, Anchorman, CBS Evening New with Walter Cronkite

All I remember from that time was this image.  I recall Mr. Cronkite, a voice I recognized better than his visage before that moment, behaving and sounding different than he had in previous newscasts.  I have always responded to deep baritone voices.  I suppose I still do.  I wonder if Mr. Cronkite had as much to do with that as my Grandpa Machado?

I ran into the kitchen to tell my mother that the television said President Kennedy had been shot.

Since my mother’s strongest desire was to never hear anything about death, she poo-pooed what I reported.   She, then, listened to the television with one ear open.  When she realized that what I had been saying was true, she immediately dropped the dish she was washing and slid into the living room. 

I wish I could say what my mother’s response was.  The truth is, I don’t really remember.   What I do recall is this trombone voiced man nearly crying on television.  I had never seen anything like that before.  I don’t even remember my own father crying before that time.

Walter Cronkite was once crowned, “The Most Trusted Man in America.”   As I grew older and began loving the news, Mr. Cronkite was the only person I would watch for my news.   If I had a question about what was truly happening, I turned to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).  I don’t know about all of America, but for me, I trusted him for my information more than anyone else in the media.  I was, as my father referred to David and me, a flicker-watcher who knew where to turn when the bottom line was needed.

Even after that Valentine’s Day in 1980, when my eldest daughter was now the same age as I was the day President Kennedy died in 1963, when Mr. Cronkite retired from the anchor desk, I enthusiastically awaited the specials and special reports he would occasionally do.  They were my Cronkite-fixes.  They were both welcome and necessary for me.

So, good-bye Mr. Cronkite.  I must say that I have a certain odd pride that you died on my 50th birthday, making this a personally historical day for me.  You were not much younger than I am now when you took over the anchor desk at the CBS Evening News from Mr. Douglas Edwards.   I suppose one fragment of my cycle is complete, as the final part of yours is here on Earth.   I must trust myself, now, to discern what is true.  I can no longer turn to you.

God bless you on your journey home and Godspeed your soul to your beloved Betsy.  May your children and grandchildren and their children be blessed with peace and joy in the knowledge that you have touched literally millions of lives in such a dynamic and positive way.  Although it may not erase their sadness, I pray that it will bring them comfort and pride.  

Good night, Mr. Cronkite, and thank you, sir.  You depart with my deepest respect and admiration, as I bow my head and gird my heart for life without knowing quite so certainly that “that’s the way it is.”


Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr.

November 4, 1916 to July 17, 2009

Death by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Seaman August Provost

Seaman August Provost

Seaman August Provost

Camp Pendleton, San Diego, CA.  

Shot to death. 

Died June 30, 2009



Seaman Allen R. Schindler, Jr.

Seaman Allen R. Schindler, Jr.

Seaman Allen R. Schindler, Jr. 

Sasebo Naval Base, Nagasaki, Japan       

Beaten to death  

December 13, 1969 to October 28, 1992





Pfc Barry Winchell
Private First Class Barry Winchell

Private First Class Barry Winchell

Ft. Campbell, Ky  

Beaten to death  

August 31, 1977 – July 6, 1999





The strange thing is that I’m not going to discuss how they died.  I’m not going to talk about their families.  I’m not going to vent my outrage at their murderers.

I will simply say that these young men, and others unnamed in the media, closeted and afraid during their honorable service, died in the line of duty.  They took their duty seriously enough to deny who they were.  They carried their duty with enough gravity to set aside their own truth to live the military truth of the United States of America in order to serve our nation with distinction.

Through their fearful and oppressive environment, through the weight of institutionalized homophobia, through their youth and inexperience with the burden of true hatred, these valiant young men died in horrific ways, either in uniform or with their uniforms hanging in their barracks closet.

These are our children, America.  Look at their faces and remember their names.  They lived protecting us.  We didn’t do the same for them.  We killed them with our ignorance.

God rest their souls and bring them into the light of his blessings.   Guide us to our awakening that nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of all our citizens.  Amen.

Comfort for the Bereaved On-Line



There are days that find me so lonesome for my immediate family of origin.  My mother, father, and brother are all gone now.

I have found the best place to visit their grave, even from hundreds of miles away.  It’s called Find-A-Grave.com.

I have over 100 entries with photos of my loved ones, stories and histories, as well as the photos of their gravesites. The best part is that I can leave techno-flowers and messages.

If you are far from the graves you’d like to visit, you can request someone to go out and take  photographs of that gravesite. There are wonderful people who volunteer to do these generous acts of kindness.

It helps. It really does.

Grave of Great-Grandmother Gertrude