Category Archives: aging

The death of part of my childhood – RIP Dennis

I grew up in a much simpler time when kids could play outside for hours at a time without parents having to worry. We knew that we would be at each other’s parents house and no one worried. When it was time to come home, our parents would yell out the door for us to come home. Sometimes it took calling us by our full name, middle name included, to get us home, but we went home, and we were safe.

In fifth grade we moved from the Sunset Heights area in El Paso to the Lakeside area, all the way across town. Normally that kind of move would be tough, but for me, and for my brother Art, it meant the start of a great set of friendships. The first day of school I went to my class with Mr. Rhymes, and sat in front of someone who would be my best friend for the next 49 years, Hugo Echavarri. Across the street and down about three houses lived the Romero family, with a young boy my brothers age, named Dennis. The four of us would spend the better part of several years playing street football, Monopoly, Stratomatic football, cards and a number of other games. Sometimes we would start early morning and play till it was time to go to bed.

We invented a game called Calvin Hill, where we would throw a football up in the air and whoever caught it had to get to one side of the end zone (our lawn) with the other three tackling them. We did this during the heat of summer, on rainy days, and even a couple of times when it snowed. We would be banged up, scratched and bleeding at times, but we kept on going.
Our street football games would go on forever, and sometimes included Dennis’ sister Donna. We hated it when she got all girlie on us and quit playing because she would break a nail. Sometimes a kid from down the street named Louie would join us as well. When Dennis and I were playing on the same team we made up an audible system to call plays depending on where Hugo and Art lined up. Did we use numbers? Nope, we used cartoon characters.

We played a lot of tennis, we “experimented” with blowing things up with a balloon full of acetylene gas and oxygen from my dad’s welding torch. We even came up with a way to use a battery and steel wool to set off the balloons. One time Art and Dennis blew a big hole in the back yard with their little experiment.

These were fun times, and innocent times. But as happens, as we got older, we kind of lost touch. Hugo and I remain best friends, and of course I keep in touch with my brother, but Dennis and I lost touch. We managed to find each other on Facebook a few years back, and spoke maybe three or four times since that time.

About ten days ago I was driving to Round Rock to take my granddaughter to a Daddy-Daughter dance. My phone went off, and it was a message from Donna, Dennis’ sister, advising me that Dennis had passed away that morning, peacefully, in his sleep.
Certainly I am sorry that we had not kept in contact more often, but I choose not to linger on that. We had a lot of good times together, and those memories will always remain. But I can’t help but think that a little part of my childhood died when I learned of his death. I will miss you my friend, but our good times will always be in my heart.

dennis

The Passing of Robin Williams – that could have been me

The recent death of Robin Williams hit me kind of hard. Here was someone whom I had never met, but somehow felt a loss at hearing of his death. From Mork and Mindy to The Fisher King, Moscow on the Hudson to Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire to Bicentennial Man, he made me laugh, he made me think, and he made me cry at times.

I read a post from Mike Rowe today, and in it he was asked to comment on Robin Williams. Part of his post really stuck out. He said “Some people enter our lives and become benchmarks in ways we don’t realize. Then they exit, and we struggle. Sometimes, those people are high-school buddies, and sometimes, they’re strangers who somehow felt like friends. Either way, it sucks when they go.”  Very well put.  It explains my feelings very well.

But I digress. What struck me was finding out about his struggles with depression. Depression is an illness that many people do not understand. Somehow they feel that all they need to do is yell at you to “snap out of it” and instantaneously you are cured. It doesn’t work that way. I know it doesn’t. It did not work for me.

Many of you that know me know that I used to practice law for many years. I was a prosecutor for several years, then went into private practice as a defense attorney, and served for almost ten years as a Municipal Court judge and night magistrate. Then it all came tumbling down in a relatively short time. It cost me a marriage, my law license, my ability to make a living, and then another divorce from an ill-conceived marriage to a friend.

Was it drugs? No, never tried them, not interested in them. Was it alcohol? Nope. After a short time in high school and part of college I realized that my genes would not allow me to be a casual drinker – I had too many alcoholics in my family, particularly my biological father. So I quit drinking when I was 20.

The plain fact of the matter is that I was suffering from clinical depression. There, I said it. Very few people other than my immediate family and close friends know about it.  I went through some health problems, a divorce that I did not see coming, my ex-wife moved my kids 600 miles away, and I found myself horribly alone.    Increasingly I found myself going home on Fridays, locking myself in my apartment with the blinds shut, and never stepping out again until Monday when it was time to go to work.

I lacked the energy and desire to do anything at all.   That included the very thing that I needed most, which was contact with my family and friends.    Add to that my reluctance at the time to ask for help with anything (a misguided sense of self-reliance) and it made for a perfect recipe for what became more than just sadness.   I also quit doing the one thing that could have helped me a lot –  I quit attending church.    My faith had always been an important part of my life, especially considering that I made quite a change in my college years by breaking away from the faith I was raised with when I joined the LDS church against the wishes of my mom and my grandmother.

I could have very easily slipped back into drinking, or started experimenting with drugs, or even toying with the idea of just ending it all.   Certainly I was ripe for that to happen to me.  Luckily for me, I guess, I was hurt in a car accident.   The doctor I went to go see for my neck pain was also trained as a psychiatrist.   He recognized the symptoms right away.  After a short trial of antidepressants (did not like them at all) he referred me to a counselor that I saw on a regular basis for quite a while.    He made me think about things that I did not want to think about.   He made me do things I did not want to do, like reach out for help from friends and family.

Little by little, I came out of a very deep fog that seemed to surround my life.  I had a very good home teacher from church that would come by my apartment every Sunday, make me wake up and shower, and go to church with him.    He kept me busy helping do service projects for others and would take me to Goal Oriented Leadership Functions.  (GOLF).  After a while I realized things were not so bad.

I was very bitter about life, did not trust people, did not want to show any sort of emotion or vulnerability to anyone except my daughters.    Believe it or not, I learned how to trust and love again because I got a dog.  That dog helped me through a lot of my down times.  He was there when I was sick, when I felt low and when I was lonely.   He never went anywhere and showed me unconditional love.   That helped to start the turnaround in my life.

It was around that time that my wife came into my life.  I had met her earlier when we worked at the same law office.  We were friends for a long time, and that eventually led to what is now the best relationship I have had in my life.    She helped me to go visit my daughters in Austin.   She got me used to a day-to-day life of being around people and doing simple ordinary things that give your life structure and meaning.   My distrust of others and fear of opening up my feelings gradually went away because of her.  It took a long time, but we eventually got married.   Molly is who encouraged me to teach, which has become my passion.  It was because of Sam, Molly’s youngest son, that I became involved in Boy Scouts,   Scouting has given me a multitude of great experiences and life long friends.

So I guess I can say I am lucky.   Consider the following:

  • Men with depression are more likely than depressed women to abuse alcohol and other substances, according to Jill Goldstein, director of research at the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
  • Depressed men may also try to mask their sadness by turning to other outlets, such as watching TV, playing sports and working excessively, or engaging in risky behaviors, Goldstein told Live Science in an interview earlier this year.
  • Men’s symptoms of depression may be harder for other people to recognize, and the illness is missed more frequently in men, Goldstein said.
  • Men with depression are more likely than women with the condition to commit suicide, Goldstein said. Men with depression may go longer without being diagnosed or treated, and so men may develop a more devastating mental health problem.  Copyright 2014 LiveScience,

 

So I dodged the perfect storm.  I am alive today and very glad to be here.  But don’t get me wrong,  I am not bragging, nor am I putting down Robin Williams and others that were not able to overcome it, or who continue to suffer.  Like I said, I was lucky.   Keep an eye out for those you love.  Don’t leave them hanging.   Look for the symptoms of depression –

  • Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt almost every day
  • Impaired concentration, indecisiveness
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping) almost every day
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities nearly every day (called anhedonia, this symptom can be indicated by reports from significant others)
  • Restlessness or feeling slowed down
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Significant weight loss or gain (a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month)  http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/major-depression

If  you are depressed, you may not know it.  Even if you do know it, you are unlikely to reach out for help.  Don’t be afraid to reach out.   It could have cost me dearly if the right set of circumstances had not occurred that led me out of haze.  This is not easy to write or to admit, but I hope that somehow it may strike a chord with someone who needs that extra push to get help.

I join the rest of the world in mourning the loss of a great entertainer.  My hope is that his death may draw attention to this misunderstood illness.    “There but for the grace of God go I”

He Chose to Love Us

He came to meet my mom on Thanksgiving Day.  He joined us for dinner, and afterwards he took my mom out on their first date. He came back on Friday and gave my brother and I both a model car kit for us to put together.   When we told him we did not  know much about cars (we were 10 and 8 at the time) he took us out on Saturday to have cheeseburgers and to go look at cars.

Less than a month after this set of events, he and my mom got married.  To this point we had been raised solely by my mom, with occasional help from my grandmother and grandfather.   My grandfather, who we called Papi, was the only male influence in our lives.

We asked him what he wanted us to call him, since he and my mom were married now.  He said we could call him Don.  We asked if it was OK if we called him Dad, and for the next 35 years he was our “Dad.”

People were often confused about our relationship.  We never called him our stepfather – he was our Dad.    He never talked about his stepkids, we were his “boys.”  So when they called him “Mr. Bullis”  or they thought we were the “Simpson” boys, we just shook it off and kept on going.

Life was not always easy with this new relationship.  At times we were quite downright ornery with him, and I regret that to this day.   While our friends played on Saturdays, we were fixing up used cars to resell or collecting scrap metal for extra money for the family.  We had chores to do everyday before my mom and dad got home.  We were not allowed to have the TV on during the day and had to keep ourselves busy. We had an old swimming pool in the backyard that needed to be torn down and filled in.  Guess who did it?  Yep, my brother and I.

So was he a tyrant?  As kids we thought so.  But when we change out a clutch in a car, rebuild our brakes, or do major repairs around the house now, we have him to thank for our acquired skills.  When I find myself working my rear end off on a project, I know I got my work ethic from him.

After my dad passed a way a few years ago my brother made an amazing statement.  I don’t remember the context, but he said that the most important thing that he learned from my dad was how to love.  What an awesome legacy.   And my brother was absolutely right.

You see, he did not have to love us.  He loved my mom, and we came with the package.  Too many step-parents don’t realize that much of what they see in their new spouse is the love that they have for their children.  My dad chose to love us.  He chose to call us his boys.  He chose be our dad.    And that is what he will always be to me.  My dad.  I had a biological father that I don’t really remember all that well since he left when I was less than two years old.  But my dad was there as I grew up, got married, and had a family of my own.

Today my dad would have been 80 years old.  I wish he was still around to see what my life has become.   I wish I could share with him the joy of being a grandpa.  I want to show him how I built my raised garden beds from the lumber of the deck that I tore down.  He probably would have shown me how to do it better, but I would have loved the feedback.

Three days from now will be Fathers Day.  I don’t need a special day to remember him.  He remains in my heart every day.    I miss you Dad.

Image

A life that made a difference

mom, art and meShe crossed the border from Juarez, Mexico to El Paso, Texas in a car with several friends. In the English she had learned while staying with her Aunts’ family in the Mormon Colonies in Mexico she declared “American Citizen” and she entered the country to begin a new adventure and a life that would touch many people down the line.

At that time, in the early 50’s her only real chance of finding work was as a babysitter/maid, which she found with Ms. Myers, a kind gentle lady that had a few kids. She washed, did some cooking, and cared for the kids while Ms. Myers worked and took care of other matters. Sometime down the line, she helped Ms. Myers put together a small party for some friends, and that is when he walked into her life. He was a young man from Michigan, stationed at Ft. Bliss for training, and the two of them generated some sort of spark. Before too long they went to Las Cruces, New Mexico and got married.

But life was not going to be the “Leave it to Beaver” fairy tale that you saw on TV. Shortly after giving birth to her son, he decided to leave her and go back to his first wife. He returned on occasion to see his son, and eventually, a second son was on his way. She never saw much of him after that. He returned to Michigan to his family and left her behind to raised two young boys on her own.

She worked hard, harder than anyone should have to work to feed their kids. Her mother and father helped as they could with a little bit of support and a lot of babysitting. The boys spent a lot of time in Juarez at their grandmother and grandfathers house while she worked. A friend of hers got her a job at Providence Memorial Hospital as a nurses aide. She had to convince a jeweler in downtown El Paso to let her may for a watch with a second hand by making payments. She needed that watch to be able to take pulses at work.

The boys grew and watched their mom come home tired, eat a small meal, and turn right back around to go back to work at the hospital for a second shift – a shift where she worked in maintenance mopping floors and cleaning up so that she could make a few extra bucks to take care of her kids. She never had much in those days, choosing to give most of what she had to her kids. On the rare occasion, she would take the boys to the Plaza Theatre downtown to watch a movie. Many times she would have to carry her boys from the bus stop back to their little apartment because they had fallen asleep on the bus on the way home.

There were a lot of obstacles at times. Even after gaining her citizenship, she was often stopped by Border Patrol and asked where she was going with those two little white boys. They did not believe that they were hers. Many men offered to “help” her with her situation, but always with strings attached that she could not, and would not accept.
Through it all she never complained, at least not to her boys. The husband that had left her alone never provided anything in terms of support, either financial or otherwise. The father figure in their lives was their grandfather, a man that was at the same time a strict disciplinarian but also a gentle soul. That husband would pass away in 1965 and the hopes of ever getting that assistance that she needed died right along with him.

She married again the following year, and her new husband treated her boys as his own. He moved them out of that little apartment into a house on the other side of the city, and he taught them the value of hard work and responsibility. Times were better, but raising two hungry growing boys required both of them to work, and often required side jobs on the weekend to provide a better life.

She taught her boys a lot of important principles – patriotism, honesty, faith, hard work, and a love of the culture from which she came. She raised them, with the help of her new husband, and sent them off into the world to live their lives as adults. It would be nice to think that she lived happily ever after, but that was not the case. Although she enjoyed a much more comfortable life and the joy of having grandkids, her health began to fail her. Two times she was diagnosed with cancer, and two times she fought back and beat it. When it came back for a third try she was just too tired and exhausted to fight it anymore. She told her loving husband and sons that she did not want to go through all the chemo and radiation again. She was at peace with her life and felt it was time to go. Eleven years ago, on January 28,, 2002 she finally gave up her battle and entered into an eternal peace.
She was a wonderful woman. She changed a lot of lives. She was a friend, a daughter, a wife, a grandmother, and my mom. I miss her terribly, even after these many years. I love you Mom.

What if you threw a funeral and nobody came?

December and January for some reason have become months of funerals and anniversaries of deaths of friends and family members. My dad passed away several years ago in December, my brother-in-law just passed this month, and at the end of the month my mom will have been gone for over a decade.

Funerals are a strange phenomena sometimes. You find family members getting together and repeating the same words they spoke at the last funeral – “We need to keep in touch!”, “Why do we wait so long to get together?” and “Why does it always take a funeral to bring us closer?” After the services, when the crying is done, the hugs are given and the reception food eaten, we go back to the same old routine and just ignore our family and friends. I am not being critical, I am just making an observation of things as I have seen them over the last few years.

A lot of time is spent at funerals talking about what a good person the deceased was in their life, and the difference that they made in people’s lives. Some people call it a person’s legacy. At a few of the funerals I helped put together video tributes to the loved one that helps bring back some great memories. It got me to thinking, what is my legacy going to be? What difference have I made in people’s lives? If they held my funeral would they need a larger facility or could they hold it in a closet sized room?

I kid with my wife and kids that I already have the songs I want played at my memorial. My choices? “Happy Cause I’m Going Home” by Chicago, and Israel Kamakiwiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow”. I know that this my be a bit cliché, but it’s what I want and expresses what my thoughts. My son Sam, who is only 21 has already told us he wants “American Pie” played at his funeral. Don’t know why, but that is what he chose and I respect that.

I have had the opportunity to teach over the last 10 years, and several of my students keep in contact with me to let me know what is going on in their lives. I hope that somehow I left a footprint in their lives somewhere. My very first Eagle Scout as a Scoutmaster surprised me a few years ago when he caught me at DFW Airport and yelled out my name. He gave me a belated thanks for helping him through his Eagle project and application. He said it helped him get his current job as an engineer. Since that time 30+ years ago I have helped several others out as well.

A lot of people, especially Molly, my wife, tell me that I have a hard time saying no. Volunteering to do things just seems to be a part of what I do and who I am. My former boss, who was the mayor of Laredo, Texas when I was an assistant City Attorney there, once told me that I should be glad that I was not a woman. When I asked him why, he said that if I was a woman I would always be pregnant because I did not know how to say “no.” A bit crude, I know, but he was trying to make a point. When my daughters were in Choir I couldn’t just be a part of the booster club, I had to volunteer to be president. I couldn’t just go to the Homeowners Association meetings, I had to run to be on the board.

This is not a “hey look at how great I am” type of story. The thought of who would take time to remember me isn’t a huge part of my thoughts on a daily basis, but you can’t help but wonder–how will people remember me? During a professional development meeting one day we were asked to state what it was that we would like to see on our tombstone. Being the smart aleck that I tend to be, my immediate response was “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” It got a few laughs, but I was floored by the thoughtful response of one of my colleagues. He said he wanted it to say, “he was a good husband and father”.

Wow. That summed it all up in just a few words. That is what I want my legacy to be – a good husband and father (and by extension grandfather as well). I need to spend the rest of my life living up to that legacy. If no one but my family came to my funeral, I would be ok with it. Family should be the emphasis and focus in my life. Time to make it happen.

What are you waiting for?

Today I attended the funeral for the son of one of my instructors.  The young man was 26 years old, seemed to be a kid full of life and energy, was well liked, had a lot going for him — and took his own life.   Certainly I am not in a position to judge the action, and this is not what this blog is about.     As I sat through the funeral with my wife,  I had a number of thoughts cross my mind.  This will be an attempt to sort through a lot of those thoughts.

First, depression apparently was a  hidden problem with this young man.  The priest who presided at the funeral, as part of a wonderful homily that he delivered, explained that depression is not the type of illness where a person stands on top of a hill and yells “Help me!”.   In fact, the opposite is exactly what happens.  A person suffering from depression hides his/her problems, often ignoring the symptoms or trying to work it out on their own.  I can tell you it does not work.  If you know me really well, you know that I suffered from clinical depression back several years ago.  It cost me my practice and two marriages.  But that is a topic of another blog down the line.   All I want to say is that if you know of someone suffering from depression, or that you think might be suffering from depression, please do not ignore it.   It can be a real killer, both physically and mentally.   You might need to suggest, hint, cajole, kidnap or even force them to get help, but it is very important that they get the help that they so desperately need.

Secondly, I had such a deep impression that no parent should ever outlive their children.  There is no way I can console my co-worker/friend by telling her that I know how she feels.  I don’t and I never hope to personally know the feeling.  What I can do is be there to listen, to laugh, to cry and to share.  It would be disingenuous for me to sit there and pretend to understand the emotions that she must be feeling.  This was not a case of a 95-year-old parent losing a 72-year-old child.   This was a vibrant young man with a lot going for him.   My heart goes out to her and to anyone that has lost a child.

Thirdly, why are we so afraid of death?  Both of my parents have passed away, and during their funerals I was quite taken aback by the different reactions of people to the death of their friend, relative, neighbor and co-worker.    Some were very consoling and understanding, and ready to help at a moment’s notice.  Some were afraid to look you in the eye or talk to you, as if by doing so they might set off a reaction they could not control.   Some avoided my family and I all together, choosing to stand at a distance.

I can remember one of my family members (whose name I will keep private) actually accusing me of not caring or loving my parents because I did not openly display uncontrollable fits of tears or emotion.   Because of my faith I feel I have a good understanding of the entire death process.  Although I certainly felt the loss of my parents’ company, I also knew that this was just one more step in the process of our lives.  In my mom’s case, it ended a long-term of suffering in incredible pain and disability.  In my dad’s case, he would no longer suffer the loneliness he felt at my mother’s passing.   Death is not something one should fear.

Finally, I kept thinking about a recurring theme that I have pondered all year long.   It has been brought into clearer focus since the birth of my adorable granddaughter Chloe.    Why do we wait?

Why do we wait until someone passes to express our love and respect for them?  Why are our friends, family, companions and others we care for not constantly in our thoughts, our hearts,  our prayers and our actions?

My wife and I were having a conversation the other day and I jokingly remarked that since I was going to be in Round Rock on Christmas day, I was going to miss seeing those people at church that I only see on Easter and Christmas.   Again, I do not say this in a judgmental manner.    But as friends, do we not do the same thing?  Do we not wait for significant events like deaths, weddings, births, surgeries, etc. to find the time to visit?   How many times do we say at those events – “We really need to keep in touch”, only to fall back into the same old pattern in our lives?

In the case of the death of one of those we care for, do we find ourselves regretting not having spent more time with them?  Do we wish we had told them how we felt?

I have a very vivid memory of the last phone call my dad and I had before he passed away.  My dad lived in the little town of DeBerry, Texas.   How and why he chose to move there after my mom’s passing is still a mystery to me.  He was 7 hours away from the closest family (which was me) and lived by himself.    We chatted about me making a trip to DeBerry to help him find a new heart doctor so that he would not have to make the 800 mile trip to El Paso every time he needed to go for his checkup.   We discussed all the things he liked to talk about, and had a friendly argument about his other favorite topic – hating whoever was President at the time.  But what made this last talk special is that we spent the last few minutes of our call talking about how much we cared about each other.

I got a call 3 or 4 days later from his pastor.  They found my dad on the back porch where he had apparently collapsed after a heart attack..   What sorrow I would have had if I had not had the time to say what was on my mind during that last call, even if I did not know it was the last time I would talk to him.

Recently I have tried to reach out to my extended family.  My father’s family (as opposed to my dad that I just talked about) is from Michigan, and I have had some limited contact with them.   My mom’s side of the family, many of which I met at a family reunion about 13 or 14 years ago, is another story.  I have been horrible at keeping up with them, and it is my goal this year to make sure that they become a part of my life.

Don’t be surprised to hear from me.  Regrets are not something I want to have in my life.  I will be reaching out to those I love and care for.   What are you waiting for?

At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.
Barbara Bush