I retired from nursing one year ago and thought I would quickly figure out what my next "passion" would be. Then placing my elderly father in long term care and the game changer, COVID. I began journaling as a way to corral my thoughts and attempt to gain perspective on all the things 2020 has thrown my way. I wanted to start a blog and share my experiences. I want to hear how others have navigated this year. There is great strength in reading others' stories and realizing we are not alone.
My six-month-old grandson, Lincoln, is trying valiantly to cut his first tooth. His parents would tell you he’s been slobbering and chewing anything that fits in his mouth for weeks. This isn’t their first “teething rodeo.” Big brother, Clayton, provided them with the total experience. Navigating twists and turns of similar circumstances is often easier. “Been there and done that” can have benefits. When life produces scary, uncharted paths, we can draw on our successful experiences.
While out walking this week, heart-heavy about recent events, I found myself sitting at the head table of my own pity party. I was consumed with the recent events in our nation’s capital, the daily death toll from COVID-19 topped 4000, and I was unabashedly jealous and frustrated because I had not experienced hugs from my kids and grandkids for five months. My brain was swimming in a soupy cauldron of worry and anxiety, seasoned with a generous helping of exasperation. As I stomped a little harder on my path, I pulled my phone out, looked down, and saw Lincoln pictured as my screen saver. Complete with a dinosaur hat, sporting a sweet, toothless grin, the image made me smile. Chubby, dimpled hands grasping the toy he chewed on provided a way to relieve pain from swollen, inflamed gums.
Not one to ignore analogies, I concluded one could draw parallels between teething and life events. I reasoned the solution hinged on some appropriate tools. Stay with me. My rationale for the argument follows:
Cutting teeth is a milestone in development. What parent hasn’t been excited to see their child’s first tooth appear and grace an already adorable smile? Life consists of milestones. Some seem far off, only a hazy idea. We are shocked as they arrive quicker than ever imagined. Many are joyful, and we can’t wait to experience them. Some are sad and gut-wrenching.
Pain is unavoidable in life. Teething is a physical symptom. Other manifestations can hurt with the same intensity. We need help from others to relieve our pain.
Nurturing is necessary. Medicine, tender loving care, kind words, a gentle touch—all go a long way in soothing discomfort, whether physical or emotional.
Misery loves company. When a child is in pain, we have ways to relieve it. We hold them and dry their tears, give them the appropriate medicine, or provide something to chew on. As adults, resisting the temptation to be miserable in our circumstances involves a conscious effort. Looking for the signs of hope afforded us, we need to lean on those who would offer help. We all have known those who wore a bad mood like a badge of honor. Attempts to suffer in silence are hard to disguise.
Interrupted plans are inevitable. Teething can definitely ruin a baby’s day (and mom might feel that way too). Baby can’t be expected to “deal with it.” When plans are deferred, we can choose to be persnickety (or downright out of sorts). Practicing patience when our plans and desires take an unplanned detour is the goal. Believe me; I’m preaching to myself when I make that statement.
I hope 2021 brings much joy to you. We know it won’t be without its challenges. Just remember, even though your circumstances might be uncomfortable or downright painful, we have ways to help each other.
“When Rome burned, the emperor’s cat still expected to be fed on time”
– Seanan McGuire
My husband, Rick, and I have cared for a long line of cats in 45 years. Sylvester, Poindexter, Ebenezer, Tracy, Bud, Peanut Butter, and Ruby have all been residents. Melvin was added to our menagerie of felines. He is the only one to have survived to the ripe old age of twelve. Sadly, all his predecessors, save Ruby, met with tragic ends. Automobiles, feline illness, or manufacturer-contaminated cat food claimed them. Ruby was “gifted” to a friend who lived in the country when she began to urinate in our heating vents (sorry, I know that’s disgusting). Such aberrant behavior had us stumped. The Speck children would be hesitant to reveal that 20 years ago, Ruby was stuffed in a Walmart bag and twirled around. “Fun” was their intention for her. Sadly, the bag did not hold, and she fell to the floor. Ruby plotted her revenge. Thus the heat vent debacle. Rick quickly traced the source of the unspeakable odor. Ruby went to her new country owner faster than you can say, “we’ll miss you!”
Melvin came to live with us following a phone call from a coworker. I had mentioned we (except Rick) might like another cat. Things were boring since Ruby had been exiled. The coworker spoke these magic words: “I think I’ve found a cat for you! We found him in our neighbor’s driveway. He was lying so still I thought he was dead. I’m sure he’s a stray. Would you like me to bring him to work tomorrow? You can take him home! ” The questions were rhetorical—tiny kitten adoption was a done deal.
I didn’t sleep too soundly that night. I knew I was about to commit the cardinal sin in marriage communication – If it’s surmised spouse doesn’t want another pet, don’t tell him you’re bringing one home. The next morning I decided Rick really should be apprised of my plan. A rule-following firstborn like myself couldn’t break the communication rule. A spirited discussion ensued. I listened to be polite, then delivered my ultimatum: “I’m bringing the cat home. You will need to get used to the idea.” Imagine my shock when Rick called me at work later that day to say, “I’ve been thinking about the cat situation. You never ask for much, so if you want the cat I’m on board.” The heavens opened. Angels sang. The new cat’s name would be Melvin.
The new fur baby quickly adapted and rapidly established a place in our hearts. Melvin had huge ears and paws. The veterinarian who first examined him told me he would be a huge adult cat. Before any of my grandchildren were born, Melvin weighed a “svelte” 15 pounds. He currently tips the scale at 16.5 pounds.
Melvin’s personality is “attitude” on steroids. He keeps a tiny circle of human friends, most importantly, those providing food and an empty lap to sit on. He has not been fond of our grandchildren. He has made all of them cry when they want to hug and cuddle. His intimidating modus operandi includes hissing and batting with his clawless front paws, evoking shocked expressions and frowns. Though not physically harmed, the feline rebuff dashes their expectations. They can’t hold the tears back. Our youngest grandchild, now six months old, has not met Melvin due to the COVID quarantine. I harbor a silly hope his first encounter with Melvin will be positive and tearless. I won’t be betting the farm on it.
Despite his antisocial behavior, Melvin is the “golden cat” in the line of succession for one reason: the attention, joy, and comfort he brought to my parents in their final years. My mother was enthralled with Melvin. He spent many hours snuggled up next to her in her favorite rocking chair. She would gently pet him and speak soft, affirming words. In her eyes, Melvin was brilliant. She insisted that he could count to ten with her by slapping his tail down with each number she spoke. I came home from work many times to find Melvin ensconced next to her. He would raise his eyes to me, his expression screaming, “Oh, you’re home. Big deal. I’ve got it made here.”
After mom passed away, Melvin’s attention switched to my Dad who wanted to claim the chore of feeding him. Let’s just say the portions were generous and did not support weight loss. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for more due diligence with food servings. He loved this four-legged friend, provider of entertainment, and emotional comfort. When dad lived at the care facility, he would call me every day just to visit. Without fail, he would ask after Melvin. More than once, I wanted to stuff Melvin in his crate and visit dad. Quarantine rules prevented that.
Truth be told, Melvin’s mission of comfort continues with me. The care facility called late one night in early November. Dad had tested positive for COVID. I was not able to return to sleep that night. I was shocked, frightened, and furious. I knew what the diagnosis could mean for a man eighty-nine years old. I crawled on the couch in our darkened living room and could not stop ugly, loud tears. Within minutes Melvin jumped on my lap, staying with me until morning. My feline confidant knew what I needed.
Walking is my preferred exercise—possibly a boring activity to some. For me, it “ticks all the boxes” on my exercise list: stress relief, cobwebs swept from my brain, a better night’s sleep, and weight gain kept at a minimum provided sweets aren’t included in the daily fare. My gold star reason for walking is combatting osteoporosis. Prolia injections and walking (weight-bearing exercise) keep hip fractures at bay. Always a good thing.
I walk my “route” just about every day, and a pasture sits along one portion. A herd of cows resides in the pasture. Heifers and bulls, Angus and Hereford, usually chewing on grass or sidled up under trees next to the fence row seeking protection from the hot sun or torrential rain. I’m no stranger to cows. Growing up on a dairy farm, I spent many hours waiting for dad to finish the “milking”. I would march past the cows with electric milking machines attached to their udders from the age of five or six. The machine pumps made a rhythmic noise, kind of like beating drums, as fresh white milk coursed up the sterile hoses and into the cooled milk tank. Passing by an alcove adjacent to the milk room, I sometimes saw a cow in labor, giving the process all she had. The veterinarian was summoned more than once for difficult deliveries, and a rope would pull the calf from its mother, having been tied to the calf’s feet. Farm life, simple yet miraculous occurrences teaching me about God’s creation and His plan for all living things.
Last spring, I was “cruising” along my route (my walking speed is roughly one mile every 19.5 minutes –don’t judge). I reached the cow pasture and stopped dead in my tracks. Across the fence stood a very gravid-looking Angus heifer, whose red ear tag proclaimed her “name” was Number One-Hundred-Twenty-Three. Bovine 123 (123) gazed at me with huge brown eyes, decided I was not worth investigating, then summarily turned and walked away. It was then I saw her bag of waters dangling down beside her tail. I heard myself exclaim, and this is no joke, “Hey, 123! You must be in labor! Oh, you sweet thing, you need a doula!” Rest easy. I know a doula is for humans, specifically women who want additional support during labor and delivery. A doula often works with the medical team of doctors and nurses in the labor experience.
Time stopped, and my imagination held sway. I pictured 123 in a human scenario, what her circumstances might be……
Was 123 a new mom? Where was her significant other? Waiting for her farther out in the pasture? Was the father in the picture? Did she have a birth plan? Would one of the herd step up to the challenge and act as the birth coach?
What about comfort measures? Could 123 stand upright for her labor? Would bedding down in weeds and cockleburs be more comfortable? Did a bovine inflatable ball exist in an adjacent barn to allow 123 to “labor down”? Not to put a fine point on things, but if 123 vomited during labor transition, what selfless heifer from the herd would take a deep breath and hold the barf bag? My guess was Lamaze breathing techniques for cows didn’t exist. Are Bovine epidurals even a thing?
123 would not hear the reassuring gallop of fetal heart tones. No strap would be big enough for her gravid girth. Not to mention placing the transducer in a location to provide strong, consistent transmission of the heartbeat. She had the burden of waiting until her calf was born to confirm its wellbeing.
Postpartum support loomed as a pressing need, in fact, a big one. 123 would probably breast (udder) feed her calf, but sometimes (although rarely) new moms will reject their calves. One would hope yet another heifer would answer the call providing milk supply for the vulnerable baby calf. Would the other heifers get together and plan a meal train schedule?…….
I took a deep breath and returned to the reality standing in front of me. Bovine 123 would be fine. God had created her to have the tools she needed to deliver and care for her calf. That truth was confirmed when I passed by the pasture two days later. There stood 123 with her brand new baby! The baby calf was another heifer, black with a huge white patch gracing her forehead. She had been named! Her new red ear tag proclaimed her as “Bovine 108”. She stood straight, tall, content and calm. I knew there were good days ahead.
Clayton Stoker: Son, husband, uncle, father, grandpa and great grandpa. What an impact his life made for eighty-nine years. The piece attached was written as a way to describe events at his graveside service for my children. COVID had presented issues in their lives preventing them from attending.
A debt of gratitude is owed to Dad’s caregivers at Research Medical Center. The doctors, nurses, technicians, and support staff who show up every day are the bravest people I know. Through technology, they created the conduit between patient and family. We spoke words of love and comfort on more than one webex session. I know he heard the words.
Living as God Requires
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This Old Testament verse from the prophet Micah crystallizes essential characteristics of a life well-lived. My Dad lived these words. We are humbled and grateful.
Clayton Stoker died due to COVID 19 on November 10, 2020. He was a resident in a long-term care facility. For eight months, infection control guidelines kept the virus from the facility. Slowly, despite continued vigilance, the cases increased. His exposure led him into a brave battle, but he succumbed nine days after diagnosis. Like so many families, we were not allowed to visit the hospital. He died with his nurse and doctor by his bedside. He died without his daughters next to him, holding his hand as he made the transition to heaven. I put pen to paper to describe my thoughts, to record events having a devastating effect on our family.
Two days before Dad’s death, his pastor, Dan Vanderpool, called to inquire how our family was coping. I was eager to voice my frustration with the CDC- mandated care facility quarantine and necessary separation of residents from families. Continued separation during Dad’s hospitalization was indescribably frustrating. End-of-life treatment discussions with doctors were soul-crushing. Dad expressed his wishes years prior. Conveying them to doctors, knowing they impacted his survival, was surreal and painful. His wish to avoid mechanical ventilation guaranteed that he would die if maximum oxygen therapy failed. Dan gently reminded me that things worse than death exist for a man 89-years-old. A man who lived the fullest of lives. A man who was lying in intensive care exhausted, fighting the virus ravaging his body.
Midmorning on November 10, Dr. Rogers notified me and my sister treatment options had been exhausted. Permission was needed to provide “comfort care,” sedation given while oxygen therapy is gradually withdrawn. A “cocktail” of drugs used frequently in hospice care is the protocol doctors follow to allow a peaceful death. We gave our consent. Dr. Rogers said he would call after the “process” was completed. The phone rang at 11:45 am. Comfort care took only a few minutes. My head told me our decision was the correct one, confirmed by the brevity of the process. My heart broke. I thanked Dr. Rogers for his care. He had been professional, yet compassionate, willing to listen and answer questions, and acutely sensitive to the needs of his patient’s daughters.
Dad’s graveside service was on November 27. We saw him lying in state at the funeral home before his transfer to the gravesite. Eight months had passed since I had seen him face to face. I dreaded walking into the viewing. I was angry, seeing him dead in the casket. COVID had stolen so much from us: physical touch, hugs, facial expressions signaling attitudes only understood by family, and his sparkling eyes. His delightful habit of clapping his hands and slightly lowering his head was a signature sign that he was about to express delight in the news that was going to make his day.
Had COVID drastically altered his appearance? He looked thinner, but I was relieved he still looked like Dad. In the suit and tie we provided the funeral home, he looked handsome. The mortician had draped his Masonic apron over his lap. 50- and 65-year Masonic membership pins were attached to each lapel. His hands clasped a cap we wanted him to have. The top of the cap proclaimed, “World’s Greatest Papa.” His well-worn Timex watch was on his wrist. He had not taken it off, and it had not been removed while he was hospitalized. Significant only to those who knew Dad, it symbolized the trustworthy, self-employed carpenter who built everything from decks to houses.
For more than 100 years, Star Valley Cemetery is the peaceful, final resting place of so many families. If a cemetery can be described as beautiful, such is Star Valley. Generations of the Stokers and Terrys are buried there. Carefully manicured plots surrounded by white fencing evokes a multitude of memories. While cows grazed in the adjacent pastures, names on the headstones reminded me of those I loved, the lessons I learned from them. Beyond the southwest corner of the cemetery, a stand of evergreen trees hides my parent’s farm. A mile away, in opposite directions, stand farms belonging to my grandparents and great grandparents.
The weather had cooperated for the day, sunshine, and fifty degrees. I thanked God. I feared rain, snow, or freezing temperatures would hamper the service. As we walked to the gravesite, the pandemic reminders were all too familiar with masks on our faces and social distancing enforced. If emotion threatened to overtake us, a hug was necessary and non-negotiable, social distancing be damned.
My children were dealing with COVID’s effects and could not attend the service, causing COVID’s hold on our lives to press even heavier.
The white hearse approached the gravesite. An Airman from Whiteman Airforce Base stood at attention. She executed a slow and dignified salute to recognize the Airforce Veteran who served during the Korean conflict. Breathtaking simplicity, precision, and reverence embodied the salute. Volunteers transferred his casket to the bier over the freshly dug grave.
A tent stood next to my parents’ gravestone, sheltering Dad’s flag-draped casket. Flower arrangements of red and white roses, wheat stalks, and cattails flanked the casket. Six chairs were positioned in front of the casket, ready to accommodate family members. Challenging business loomed. We needed shelter literally and figuratively to say goodbye to a remarkable man. The sadness was palpable. Those who gathered with us were protected from waves of emotion visible in the faces of eyes welling with tears.
The Grand Chaplain and Grand Master of the Kansas Fraternal Order of Masons performed part one of the service. Dad would have been in disbelief at this honor for his service of 65 years as a Free Mason. Normally a local Mason will perform the Masonic Rite. The Grand Master told us he remembered visiting Dad at the local lodge. He knew him to be a great man and was struck by the long tenure of service.
Pastor Vanderpool began the transition to the second part of the service. He made a special effort to befriend Dad over the years. Dad did not attend his church. It didn’t matter. Dan wanted to be a friend, to provide encouragement and comfort for Mom and Dad in the difficult seasons of their later years. Under the tent in that peaceful section of Star Valley, Dan encouraged us. Dad had done the two things required to enter heaven: he had trusted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, and he traveled the final journey of death, arriving in heaven, guided by the light of Christ.
Dan offered those listening to the commital a chance to share the impact Dad had on their lives. All described Dad as the constant, the one who kept their families together, providing help in tangible ways. Personal visits and support in critical times were a hallmark of his care. He encouraged family get-togethers and knew the importance of gathering to share and reminisce. Dan encouraged us to continue the example Dad had set. Listening to that admonition, we acknowledged we would not lose touch.
Presenting military honors completed the service. Two Airmen folded the American flag draping the casket. The rite was slow, deliberate, and meticulously executed. The atmosphere was so still. Birds were chirping. The sound of hunters’ rifle fire in the distance became a twenty-one-gun salute. The bugler lifted his sparkling silver cornet and played taps. The flag was presented to my sister and me. In clear, deliberate tones, the Airman expressed, “on behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation heartfelt thanks” for Dad’s service. Her words were powerful as she looked at us with piercing, soulful eyes. Her words’ gravitas, not diminished by the mask covering her facial features, was received with gratitude.
As the service concluded, attendees filed by our family and paid their respects. Many gathered around the tent, visiting, sharing stories, confirming that Dad was a treasure not to be forgotten. My cousin came to sit next to me. His eyes were sad. He had lost a dear uncle who had filled the gap in his life when his father, Dad’s brother, died. He encouraged me, vowing we would continue meeting after the COVID quarantine was over. We would continue traditions of recounting our loved ones’ stories, creating new traditions and memories that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would keep alive.
We shared roses from the beautiful arrangements with all the women that remained after the service. We knew the message in this gesture as we had been recipients ourselves—a way to show gratitude to the mourner for attending. A small token to remember Clayton, the man who brought so much joy in his distinctive touch upon our lives.
It was time to leave the sanctuary of Star Valley. With reluctance, we said our goodbyes to return to the business of life. My husband and I drove out the gate and turned towards Mom and Dad’s farmland. Their century-old house and barn were razed years ago. I still visualized them in my mind. I imagined the houses still standing of neighbors who provided me a rich heritage. One belonged to my Great Grandfather, Sam Terry, “Grandpa Sam,” the family patriarch. He was Dad’s maternal grandfather. Dad possessed a significant number of Grandpa Sam’s personality traits: forever pleasant and optimistic, willing to make the best of crushing circumstances, always looking for opportunities to make people smile, never deterred from moving on with a life focus.
As we drove home, the weight of the day’s emotions lessened and transformed into the realization of gratitude for Dad’s life. The heritage he provided for the next generations could not be quantified. I could begin to accept the sadness of his final months in quarantine and the cruelty of the malicious virus that claimed his life. Our time at Star Valley brought to the fore a life well-lived, touching so many hearts. His impact for good in the community was undeniable.
Our preference would have been to keep Dad with us for many more years. I cannot begrudge him what he now knows—eternal rest, heaven’s splendor, and the joy of seeing loved ones who led the journey to his final destination.
When I retired almost a year ago, I had the insane idea that I would be able to hit the ground running and have a clear idea of what my retirement would look like. I soon found out that six years as a nurse clinical manager for a family practice office conditioned me to multitask, be available for texts and phone calls by 5 am, and have at least 10 “open tabs” in my brain requiring my attention during the course of the day.
I discovered the first week of retirement I lacked ability to slow down, focus on one thing at a time, and resist the urge to complete all designated tasks by 5pm. The need to stay busy and have a goal each day became a source of frustration. I couldn’t plan enough activities for my day. I began to get impatient and occasionally surly. My husband retired a few years earlier and my daily obsession for completing a to-do list became a point of contention. I noticed he was in no particular hurry to get up at at dawn and get right to tasks at hand. Bless his heart, he was patient and kind despite my feverish desire to adhere to schedules.
After a period of adjustment (mine, that is) I realized rethinking the concept of my retirement would be the better part of valor. I began to implement changes and discovered a growing freedom. Resisting the urge to jump out of bed every morning hitting the ground running was liberating. I could have my coffee, listen to my favorite cable news network, check out my Facebook page, and THEN I could shower and dress for my day. I was blissfully ignorant that in a few weeks the reality of COVID shutdown and quarantine would become the new reality.
Since March I have been forced into a paradigm shift. I want to share experiences that have shaped this year in the age of a pandemic and the lessons I’ve learned and continue to learn. I know you have stories to share too.