Category Archives: family

Requiem for 2020

The year in which I lost my father has been a truly ghastly ghoul of a year. I could spend time listing all the things that went wrong for me personally, but that would be a very long list for no real gain in wisdom. I need to take some time just now to reflect on some very hard lessons we have been given by this year to deal with in a way that we might potentially learn from.

There is a chance I may live out the rest of this year and reach 2021. But it is not guaranteed. The pandemic virus, Covid 19, is an insidious destroyer of organs, attacking lungs, heart, and brain, causing blood clots and complications long after the initial infection has passed. The way it strikes people, randomly cruel to one, and presenting no symptoms to the next, has guaranteed it would be almost impossible to control, if we were even trying to control it. And we are dually blessed with an incompetent and corrupt presidential administration that couldn’t care any less if I lived even if they stood to make money off my demise. Like the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death of the Middle Ages, this virus is restructuring our economy and changing our world in ways no one has as yet accurately foreseen.

Firing the salute at the graveside memorial for my father, a Korean Conflict Navy Veteran.

I have not, as yet, survived this pandemic. I have multiple risk factors that make it dangerously likely that at some point I will have to discover the hard way whether I can survive an infection or not. My middle child of the three came home infected in August from his job as a jailor for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office. I managed to avoid infection then until he tested negative again, unless I had it as a symptomless carrier during our summer quarantine. Only time will tell. I have not had an antibody test. I haven’t suffered any Covid aftereffects either.

My father did not die of Covid. Parkinson’s Disease like Michael J. Fox and Mohammed Ali had was ultimately what robbed him of memories, the ability to talk, and eventually the abilities to eat and breathe. The “good news” is, I have Parkinson’s symptoms myself, and am merely waiting for a safer time to see the doctor to get it diagnosed. There is more than merely one way that my life could end before 2021 arrives.

But my father led a good life. And he passed a good life on to me. He taught me self-reliance and a respect for hard work in a way only a former farm boy and Navy Seaman could. He taught me to lay shingles as we re-roofed both our house in Rowan and our stable-turned-car-garage also in our little Iowan farm town. He taught me love classical music, especially Beethoven and Mozart, as well as Ravel, Chopin, Vivaldi, and… he always argued… John Philip Sousa. And he started his own Great American Novel. I had to sneak into his closet when I was eleven to read it. It was only about the first third of a novel written all in pencil and kept in a gray binder under the winter clothes in the box on the floor at the back of his walk-in closet. It was called Prairie Moon. It was about a very stubborn and self-reliant pioneer named Ed Adems who built himself a sod hut in the Iowa grasslands of the 1870s. So, I guess, he also taught me to be a self-published novelist. I have at this point published eighteen novels and books, with numbers nineteen and twenty already at least halfway finished.

My three kids when they were small and had goblin grins for the camera.

I hope you listened to the Mozart Requiem while you read this post. I listened to it while I wrote it. A requiem is a Mass for the repose of the dead. We honor them and remember their goodness and light while we commit them to their eternal sleep, even if we are atheists. Because there is a next life for them, no matter what you believe. They live it through us. My father lives in me. And as my hold on life gets weaker and more tenuous, I will live in my children. I have tried to teach them as my father taught me.

And as we put to rest the terrible year of 2020, hopefully there was some good in it too to carry on into 2021 and beyond. And, Dad, you kept all your promises. If you ever failed me, I do not remember it. And I pray that, having kept most of my promises to my children too… at least so far… I will pass on the light for generations yet to be born. You are a part of that too. God bless you, I love you, Amen.

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Strawberry Fields

This foolish essay about berries that mean love to me is only partly inspired by the Beatles song, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That’s because, of course, their song was only about meditating. In the lyrics they take you to the “Strawberry Fields where nothing is real… but it’s nothing to get hung up about…” They are talking about a blissful place of no worries where we all need to go. And then staying there forever.

This, of course, I could never do. Worrying about the future is tattooed on my behavioral imperatives in the dark part of my stupid old brain. And while I often found that place of no worries, and lingered there for a bit, I found you could never really get anything done if you stayed in that state of strawberry fields forever.

But don’t get me wrong, strawberries are a critical part of every healthy mental diet.

You see, my meditations on strawberries when I was a child of eight, nine, and ten centered on the strawberry patch at Great Grandma Hinckley’s place.

She was, as I incorrectly recall, slightly older than Jesus when I was that age. By that I mean, though she seemed museum-quality ancient to me, I had derived wisdom about life, love, and laughter from her before Sunday School taught me any of those things said in Jesus’s words.

And I was given the task of mowing her lawn in the little plot of land surrounding her little, tiny house in the Northern part of Rowan where I also lived and grew and celebrated Christmas and Halloween and Easter and the 4th of July. And though I was doing it because she was so old, I never even once thought she was too old and frail to do it herself. Grandma Hinckley’s willpower was a force of nature that could even quell tornados… well, I thought so anyway when I was eight. And she gave me a dollar every time I did the lawnmowing.

But there were other things she wanted done, and other things she wanted to teach me. There was the garden out back with the strawberry patch next to it. She wanted me to help with keeping the weeds and the saw grass and the creeping Charlie from overrunning the strawberries and choking them to death. (Creeping Charlie wasn’t an evil neighbor, by the way. He was a little round-leafed weed that grew so profusely that it prevented other plants from getting any sunlight on their own leaves, causing a withering, yellowing death by sunlight deprivation. I took my trowel to them and treated them like murderers. I showed them no mercy.)

And Grandma always reminded me not to be selfish and eat the very berries I was tending in the garden. She taught me that eating green strawberries (which are actually more yellow than green, but you know what I mean) was bad because they could give you a belly ache, a fact that that I proved to myself more than once (because eight-year-olds are stupid and learn slowly.) She also taught me that it is better to wait until you have enough strawberries to make a pie, or better yet, strawberry shortcake with whipped cream. She taught me that delayed gratification was more rewarding in the long run than being greedy in the short run and spoiling everything for everybody.

She always gave me a few of the ripe strawberries every time I helped her with them, even if I had eaten a few in the garden without permission. Strawberries were the fruit of true love. I know this because it says so in the strawberry picture. Even though I probably never figured out what true love really means.

My Great Grandma Nellie Hinckley was the foundation stone that my mother’s side of the family was built on. She was the rock that held us steadily in place during the thunderstorms, and the matriarch of the entire clan of Hinckleys and Aldriches and Beyers and other cousins by the dozens and grandchildren and great grandchildren and even great great grandchildren. I painted the picture of her in 1980 when she passed away. I gave it to my Grandma Aldrich, her second-eldest daughter. It spent three decades in Grandma’s upstairs closet because looking at it made Grandma too sad to be so long without her. The great grandchild in the picture with her is now a grandmother herself (though no one who has seen this picture knows who it is supposed to be because I painted her solely from memory and got it all wrong.) But Grandma Hinckley taught me what true love means. And true love has everything to do with how you go about taking care of the strawberry patch.

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The Devil is in the Details

2020

has been one of the worst years of my life. I say one of… because in 1966 I was sexually assaulted, and a tornado attacked Belmond, Iowa with both of my parents there for work… and me not knowing if they were alive or dead for about eighteen hours.

This has been another dragon of a year. The pandemic took away my substitute teaching job, removing permanently the last chance I had to do a thing I loved.

And, of course, my father has had a series of strokes that took away his memories of his wife and family and has left him dying in hospice care

He had another incident yesterday. They called my mother on her one day she was allowed to visit him (due to the pandemic) and told her not to come in. He hadn’t awakened that day, and they didn’t expect him to make it. So, she started calling all of us to let us know the end had come. Except it hadn’t. He did wake up after all. And Mom had to undo the final notices she had already done.

But he lost some ground. Before he could talk, even though his memory was mostly gone. He would talk about crazy things, like working in a Hardware store in Lubbock and needing to retire because his 89th birthday is this month and he was exhausted from working. (He did somehow remember his birthday accurately, though he has never worked in Lubbock, Texas.) Now he can only mumble incoherently. He is emaciated and loses ground daily.

And it is wearing on my mother who is 87 and has not been so alone since they married in 1956. I fear once he is gone, we will lose her too. I have spent long hours on the phone with mother and sisters for most of three months now. There has been tears and heartache over long-distance phone lines. The Trump Pandemic has kept us hundreds of miles apart.

I am reminded that my life has been pretty good compared to that of Jews and Gypsies and political dissenters in Germany and Poland in the 1930s and 40s. And the plague now is probably better than the Black Death in the Middle Ages. But, in the space of a year, we have reached a point where those comparisons are no longer merely exaggerations.

But bankruptcy, illness, and misfortune have not changed who I am. There is still more in life to be lived. At least until there isn’t. And on that day when I play that final game of chess with the Grim Reaper… Who knows? There’s still a chance I might win the game.

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The Long Road

It came to an end for Justice Ginsberg after 87 years. It will come to an end soon for my father too. He is in hospice care at 88 years and eleven months. Her turns 89 in October. But he is deteriorating every day now. The final destination can’t be too much farther down the road for me either.

Life is not a Disney movie with Bambi in it. My mother made it out of the meadow alive when I was small.

But, when you think about it, after a cute and funny childhood, there was that moment behind the car tires when trauma struck, at age ten, and after that I had to grow up faster than should have been necessary. And in my youth and in my prime, I had to struggle to prove myself. Against other bucks, and hunters with guns, and… at the end of the movie, it seems like the whole world is on fire.

So, maybe life is like a Disney movie with Bambi in it. And maybe I have to make my own happy ending.

Perhaps Bambi is my spirit-animal. The one who protects my family. My patronus. My guardian angel.

No matter how I take it on, it has been a long and wearying road to follow. And the journey now is nearly complete. But the last few miles are always the hardest to bear. Still, I know the journey has been worth it. And there will be rest to be had in that last meadow. RGB already knows it. Soon my father will too. Peace be upon us, for we have earned it.

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Doom Looms… Yet Again

My number two son is coronavirus positive. All four of us who live in the house are now under quarantine for fourteen days (at a minimum). I have six incurable diseases, three of which; diabetes, hypertension, and COPD, the virus uses as the window to climb in and assassinate you.

We are not supposed to share a bathroom with the ill person, which is hard to do with only one bathroom. Nobody is seriously considering peeing outdoors.

We are all now wearing masks in the house. Well, except for my wife who insists she can’t breathe with a mask on all day (though she does it for her job as a Texas school teacher.) And she is a diabetic too.

What are the chances that I will still be alive in two weeks? Well, I am proceeding with the idea that I have a zero percent chance myself. I will do what I can to swim with the current. Like a good Taoist, I will not try to change the natural order of things. I have been retired now for six years, not by choice, but because of health problems. I am actuarily supposed to be dead five years ago. Heck, I had the H1N1 virus twice (both strains). The fact that I am still alive now means that I am very hard to kill.

So, I am expecting to die soon, but doing everything in my power to paddle the boat to safety in the raging river of Doom, Gloom, and rumors of Boom.

But my regrets are few. It has been a very good run. I have had a lotta laughs over 64 years. I taught for 31 years. I have written 16 novels and one book of essays. I am about halfway finished with my next novel.

I have to thank Walt Kelly’s Pogo for allowing me to steal these illustrations.

My next novel is called The Wizard in his Keep. It is about three kids who are orphaned by a car wreck, then rescued by a family friend. Their weird “Uncle” Milt Morgan has been helping to create a virtual-reality computer game called The Legend of Hoodwink. He takes them to live inside the game world. And there they discover that things have gone terribly wrong for the computer game and the company that designed it. And it’s possible that the game has been contaminated with real magic somehow. And there may no longer be any way out of the game ever again.

This book may well be my own Mystery of Edwin Drood (the last, unfinished book by Charles Dickens.) It is somehow perfect, then, that this novel was inspired by The Old Curiosity Shop, and has many Dickens references in it.

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Fighting the Good Fight

I like to think of myself as a good person. In fact, having been a successful public school teacher, I basically feel that calling myself a hero is not the same sort of toxic narcissism that Prexydental Trumpalump displays when he thinks of himself that way.

I need to get it through my thick head that everyone sees themselves that way, and that it is universally untrue. We let too much badness go unopposed. We are hard-hearted too often towards our fellow men and women… and children… and animals… and the planet as a whole.

We see others who are different than ourselves as “others” and exclude them from our groups, some of us going so far as to villainize others just because their skin is green, or because they know what “Blogwopping” means and we don’t. And what we villainize, or demonize, or verminize, we feel righteous in harming, even exterminating.

So, what’s the point I am making? Am I such a loathsome creature that the only way I can make the world a better place is to curl up and die? Of course not. That’s the darkness talking me back into grave ideas and depressed thinking. I need to spread a little of that old Norman Vincent Peale peanut-butter on the slice of toast that is my world. Yes, a little bit of positive thinking can re-butter your toast for the better in order to prepare you to battle the battles that must be fought and won.

A true warrior is not the guy doing the most killing on the battlefield. And he is not the one who dies for his country either. Both may have their place in a war, but neither is the one who wins it. A true warrior is the one who endures to the end. The last man standing. The one who rules the battlefield at the end of the day.

So, what do I mean with all this warrior nonsense? I mean, my Great Grandma Hinckley was a true warrior, because she steadfastly led her family through five generations of it, and made more generations possible.

You say the world is dying of climate change? My Grandma was a relentless garden-keeper, helping us to survive with garden-fresh sweet corn, sweet peas, pumpkins, squash, and carrots from her garden. And she planted a multitude of flowers every year to keep the bees happy and a everything they pollinated growing.

You say we may succumb to pandemics and plagues? Grandma Hinckley was a maker of chicken soup, a mender of wills and willpower in the downhearted… church-goer, psalm-singer, user of Vick’s Vapo-Rub, Dr. Scholl’s inserts, Werther’s Original Butterscotch and Hard Candies, and if worse came to worse… Castor Oil!

And for political problems… government corruption and such? Well, maybe you can’t still vote for FDR or Eisenhower… but you damn sure better vote.

Yes, my Great Grandma Hinckley was a true warrior.

And so, I am ready for the fights to come. I will be a warrior like her. I will be a problem-solver, and I will endure. Because that’s just what you do, no matter the odds against you. I learned it from her. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with a warrior for a grandma, or mother, or father, or sister, brother, wife, or son… even daughter. We stand a chance if we will only stand together. And we do it for love.

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Honor Thy Father

My father is in hospice care as I write this. He is in the late stages of Parkinson’s Disease and probably has experienced multiple strokes in the last two months of Summer 2020. He is ninety years old. And in many ways, he is already gone. I mean he is living in his past now. He is recalling his time in the Navy during the Korean War. At times he doesn’t know my mother, and he doesn’t remember that he ever had a family. Of course, this essay will not be a happy-go-lucky, full-of-jokes-and-humor essay. We can’t even visit him because of positive tests for COVID in his current care facility. And I am stuck here in Texas while he’s still in Iowa because the pandemic precludes travel between hot-spot States. But neither is this going to be a tear-fest. My father’s life was not a sad thing to reflect upon. My father was a domestic hero.

My father was born into an Iowan farm family in Nora Springs, Iowa. There my Grandfather, Arthur Beyer, worked the land for raising corn and beans, and together with my Grandma, Mary Beyer, raised a family of three, Raymond Beyer, who is my father, Aunt Jean Beyer, and Uncle Roger, better known as Skip Beyer.

Being the oldest, Dad was the most responsible for helping on the farm with chores and odd jobs during the depression in the 1930’s, and during wartime in the 1940’s. He learned a work ethic that involved doing the next thing right away so that you can get a head start on the thing after that. Never put off until tomorrow what you could’ve done yesterday. Stay ahead of the weeds and bad weather. Prepare for the worst and be happy when you don’t get it. But also grit your teeth and pitch in when you do get it. As his oldest son, he taught all of this to me. I hope I never disappointed him as his student.

He came from difficult times. He was still a boy during World War II, but when he came of an age to serve, he enlisted in the Navy, a family tradition, and served aboard Aircraft Carriers during the Korean conflict. Of course, he never saw actual combat. But aboard the USS Bennington, there was a terrible war-time accident. A boiler-room explosion killed the young sailor who had relieved Dad from a duty station in the blast area only a couple of hours before. But for a matter of luck, I might never have been born. Or, more properly, for the Grace of God…

And though it was a difficult time, in many ways it was also a simpler and more innocent time.

My father not only forgave me for the skinny-dipping incident at Randy’s birthday party, he laughed about it when I told him. And I had wisely not finished getting naked for it even before we knew the girls were spying on us. So, I didn’t have to be totally embarrassed by it when he laughed. My father didn’t laugh at everything, but when he laughed, he laughed well.

During the tornado in Belmond in 1966, he was something of a hero… to my way of thinking at least. He was the last one down into the cellar as the fertilizer company’s office building blew apart. Being at the top of the stairs, a shard of something clipped the scalp on the top of his head as the storm leveled the place where he worked as an accountant. So, he was bleeding when he helped everyone emerge from the wreckage. And he continued to let it bleed as he assisted storm victims all the way down Main Street, working his way towards the hospital where Mom worked as an R.N. He found her in the miraculously untouched hospital, and she quickly got him patched up and un-bloodied. We four children had a miserable night at Uncle Larry’s place, knowing that both of our parents had been in the tornado, but not knowing if they survived. It was Dad who was able to pick us up and take us home the next day. If nothing else makes you a hero in life, surviving because your children need you to certainly does.

I would not be who I am if not for my father. I owe to him everything in life I don’t owe to my mother. I wish love could be enough to cure him. He’s still alive at this point, but his mind is lost in the past… reliving the events on the Bennington, reliving the tornado, and somehow not able to remember the good things in life… and remember us, his children and grandchildren. If love were enough, I could cure him so well, he would be young again, and able to live it all over again. But I guess, that is really God’s job now. And who am I to argue with my father’s father’s father?

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Love ‘Em While You Got ‘Em

Renfatootie Paffenboingey does not really look like this.

My wife is an immigrant from the Philippines, come to this country in 1993 to be a Texas public school teacher. Like the other members of the Filipino colonization of the United States, she came here with family. And more are coming every year. You go to a family gathering and meet cousins by the dozens, friends from this country, and friends from that country, and their relatives, and lots and lots of kids… that must belong to somebody somewhere.

They get together and talk, tell jokes, eat, talk some more, sing karaoke, mostly off key, tell stories about the Philippines in English, and stories about the Philippines in Tagalog, and stories about the Philippines in Kapampangan, and even stories about the Philippines in Ilocano (but nobody listens to him anyway… He’s from the North) and sing more karaoke, and definitely take a group photo while eating and talking.

And one time at one of these family gatherings, while others were singing karaoke, somebody put a baby girl in my lap. She was Renfatootie Paffenboingey. (Obviously not her real name… even in Kapampangan.) She was the daughter of my wife’s cousin and her Greek husband. She was only about a month old then. My own daughter had not yet been born. She was, in fact, not even certain to be a daughter at that point in the pregnancy.

“You need to get used to holding one of those,” Renfatootie’s mother told me.

And then the sweet little thing looked at me and smiled (though she was not old enough to focus her eyes and what she did was probably more gas bubble than smile.) I am told that you are not supposed to fall in love with other people’s children, so I didn’t. Or I did and just lied about it afterwords.

There were several other times that baby Ren was put in my lap. I rocked her to sleep and sang softly to her more than once at family gatherings and picnics and barbecues and… they do a lot of eating in Filipino families.

As Ren got older they began to call her “Tweety” because of the big forehead and big eyes and the Tweety-bird grin she always wore. I didn’t see her often, and talked to her even less. I really thought she didn’t know who I was. She was not my kid. She smiled at me a lot, but she smiled at everybody.

This is not Renfatootie in her bathing suit either. This is an alien girl in her scaly skin.

Then one day we were at a picnic in New Braunfels where the families were all taking advantage of the cold spring water in the creek in the park on hot South Texas day. I was talked into putting on swim trunks and getting in the water with my kids and all the other kids. Renfatootie had a squirt gun. She was about ten then. And as malevolent as a ten-year-old is made by God to be. Every opportunity she found she used to squirt me directly in the face. And then she giggled and ducked the splashes of my weakly attempted revenge. It almost got to the point of being more irritating than cute.

Later I had put clothes back on and most everyone was settled into eating and talking and taking group photos while eating for the rest of the afternoon. Renfatootie “Tweety” Paffenboingey came after me soaking wet from her most recent dip in the cold water.

“Michael! Give me a hug!” she commanded, throwing her arms out wide for me. I took hold. And the wet little thing soaked my clothes in chilled water as she gave me such a squeeze that my eyes nearly popped out of my head.

“You did that just to get me wet again,” I said, with a smile rather than anger.

“Nah. You gotta love ’em while you got ’em. I don’t get to love you near enough.”

I was not the only one she pulled the wet-hug trick on that day. But she left me admiring her philosophy of life in a big way. I may not seize the opportunity as much as she does. But I have resolved to try.

It’s been a few years since I saw her last. She’s a big girl now. Graduated from high school and everything. But remembering her brings a smile to my face even now.

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Flintstone Cures for COVID 19 Blues

The pandemic has been wearing on us all. It keeps us home-bound. It prevented me from making the annual trip to Iowa to visit my octogenarian parents, even though my father is now in hospice care because Parkinson’s is winning the five-year battle he has been fighting against it. My mother got me to stay in Texas by telling me that my father no longer recognizes even her, and it would do him no good to see me through a glass window if he didn’t know me anyway. I may not even get to attend his funeral because of COVID.

My daughter too has been dealt a difficult hand of hearts to try to win a card-game of life with. She missed having a regular high school graduation. This is already her second time losing a grandfather. And she has been desperately worried about me with my six incurable pre-existing conditions catching my death of coronavirus flu just because I go to the grocery store to buy food.

But I am not suggesting that my family is the Flintstones, even though Fred, Wilma, and Pebbles have been a part of my life since the 1960’s. Instead I am showing you how we have been coping with it all. My daughter has taken to doing oil-paintings in her room, and today she registered online with the local Junior College. She has also developed an addiction to Fruity Pebbles cereal. They are putting these blank frames on the backs of her cereal boxes, and I have been addicted to cutting them out and drawing Flintstones characters on them. We have developed happy little artistical quirks to carry on the work of the Church of Bob Ross where we create whatever little worlds with our art that we feel like making today. And it is entirely up to us to make our world however we want it to be, just like Bob always says.

And, of course, we choose to make friends and neighbors a part of that world too.

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The Beginning of Night

Yesterday my 89-year-old father went into the hospital. He suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and a heart no longer strong enough to keep his blood pressure up. Apparently yesterday he lost the ability, possibly only temporarily, to recognize my mother.

This is not a good time to lose my father. There is never a good time, but now my health is failing. I had to make deals with relatives to get someone to drive me up to Iowa for the annual visit to the family farm during the pandemic which is now spiraling out of control in Texas. My wife and I are both diabetics and at risk. If we accidentally take COVID 19 up to Iowa, I could wipe out all four of us. And I developed a cough and chest pain overnight. At least now I can make a case for getting a COVID test.

I know a post like this goes against the rules for a good blog post. It is entirely too personal and self-focused. But it is necessary sometimes to confess your fears before you confront them. I have had my father and mother in my life for the entirety of my 64 years. They have both lived good, long, and fruitful lives. And a time for passing comes to us all. I have been far luckier in holding back the night than the vast majority of people. But the only immortality we can ever hope to have is through passing on the small part of the universal story that belongs only to each of us individually. “I am a child of the universe. No less than the trees and the stars, I have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to me (And at this moment… it is not) the universe is unfolding… as it should” – a paraphrase from Desiderata.

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