I depart as air
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles
You will hardly know what I mean,
But I shall bring good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
By Ryan Hilligoss, June 16, 2013
“The only things you hold onto in life are the ones you let slip through your fingers.”
The picture above may be a little out of focus, but it captures the subject in perfect form, as he was before he passed away a little more than a year ago. That is Dennis Renner, my father-in-law, my friend, as I picture him so often in my mind and in my memory: hands tucked under his arm pits(ala Mary Katherine Gallegher from SNL skits), white undershirt, checkered, short sleeve button down, grizzled beard, glasses, hair a little askew, and his head titled to the side as he listens to someone talk and with a slight, impish grin on his face like he doesn’t quite believe what the person is saying and he is about 5 seconds away from telling them they are full of it and to be quiet. The fact the photo is slightly out of focus perfectly fits the fact that as time passes and friends and family leave us, our memories of them become a little hazy and a little muddy in our memory, but the fact remains that we do remember them and hold onto what we have left. But there are a few moments in time that remain crystal clear and precise down to the exact details on the time of day, the weather, the location and who was present because they are indelible, defining moments in our lives.
(*Editors note: Yes Dennis used to stuff his hands under his armpits while listening to someone talk or watching TV, but unlike Mary Katherine, he didn’t smell his hands afterwards. At least not that I ever saw anyways. But I wouldn’t put it past him if he did. That was the kind of guy he was 😉
Part I: An opportunity at the door
Dennis’ health problems started about 5 years ago when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after he discovered a sizeable lump on the side of his neck. I think he knew about it well before he went to the doctor but was probably afraid of what it meant for him and his family and hesitated a little too long. He had surgery performed at Rush Hospital in Chicago by one of the leading throat doctors in the nation and the surgery went well even though the cancer had spread a lot further than previously believed. But the recovery period was very difficult for him, his wife Pat and his four kids, namely his youngest daughter, my wife Kimberly, since we lived close by, and Kim was frequently on hand to help clean the dreaded, uncomfortable tracheotomy tube placed in his esophagus to allow for breathing and ventilation. When things needed to be done including picking up prescriptions, taking him to the doctor’s office for appointments, and all the dirty work, it was Kim who got the call and made her self available when needed, regardless of the time of day, how busy she was with her work and family or if she was not feeling well herself.
As time passed and he finished his radiation treatments, he grew fairly healthy again and regained his strength and appetite. The relief was short-lived as Kim’s mother, Patricia, soon began to experience issues of her own, and Kim and Dennis were forced to make the tough, but necessary decision to place her in an assisted living facility due to her size and limited mobility. Given the fact his wife of 40 years was now not available to him on a daily basis, Dennis began to rely on Kim more and more for daily household tasks which placed an extreme burden on her and our family. Being the protective husband, I began to grow frustrated with his insistence to call on a whim if some mundane task needed to be done at the house and he called Kim for help when it could have waited for a short time, or him stopping by on a moment’s notice if he received a piece of mail he didn’t understand or didn’t know how to handle.
Tensions between the three of us began to grow last year when one day in May he stopped by our house to talk with Kim about his own health as he said he was not feeling well, despite the fact Kim and I were both busily working at home that day. As he came in the door, I was on a business call and after quietly nodding my head, I returned to my laptop screen to finish my call. He and Kim sat at our kitchen table and talked for a period of time before he rose from his chair and headed towards the door. As I sat close by at my work desk on another call, I heard his footsteps and could sense him standing in the doorway waiting to wave to me, but being the stubborn ass that I was and remain, I stayed put in my chair as he slowly opened the screen door and quietly closed it to avoid disturbing me. That was the last time he was ever at our house as he went to the hospital the next day to be admitted for breathing issues, from which he never recovered. As he stood by the doorway hesitating for a few moments that day, I had every opportunity to simply turn and wave at him to say goodbye, the simplest of human gestures, but I failed in every way possible in that brief snapshot of time.
Part II: What day is it?
Dennis was admitted into Kishwaukee hospital in Deklab, Illinois for what we thought we be a mere few days for breathing problems and was diagnosed with pneumonia and dehydration. As one day passed to the next, his breathing continued to deteriorate over the next week and a half until he was diagnosed with a bacterial infection in his lungs and was quickly placed in the ICU and was closely monitored by nurses and doctors. When his condition continued to worsen, it was determined that there were only two courses of action, both involving very powerful, high level antibiotics given intravenously. The first course was attempted, but doctors determined within a few days that his body was not responding as hoped, and there was only one other possibility, which was shocking given the state of modern medicine. In order to allow the opportunity for the second course to work and to allow him to breathe easier, he was incubated on a Saturday morning and put into an induced coma so his body could rest. He was left to slumber for a few days and then the doctors decided to bring him up from his sleep each morning to check on his natural breathing. Kim was by his side each day, every day knowing that despite the fact he was sleeping, he knew she was there.
On the first morning they woke him up, early with morning light, he opened his eyes in a fog of medicine and uncertainty. His eyes quickly locked onto Kim’s and his hand groped for hers and he asked what day it was, and as she replied that it was Tuesday, his eyes grew wide with shock with the knowledge that as he lay sleeping those few days he truly had no sense of time passing. But to my mind it was more than that: yes he subtly knew that time had slipped away from him for those few days, but more importantly, his mind quickly understood that time had slipped away from him over his whole life, from being a boy, to a young man in the navy, to a young father, to middle age with four children and a wife under one roof, to a retired postal worker just now enjoying the benefits of free time and his hobbies, and now here he was in dire consequences. In that moment, I think he realized the enormity of his life and what his current condition meant for him and his loved ones. The doctors quickly determined he was not doing well on his own body’s volition and quickly returned him to an induced sleep.
Part III: Am I dying?
A few more days passed while his condition slowly grew worse as the clock turned. On the last day the doctors woke him up, it was not pleasant as he struggled with the tubes and other equipment that surrounded him and his chest heaved violently as his lungs tried to keep up. Without being able to see clearly, he still knew Kim was there and as he clasped her hand, he whispered his last words when he asked her if he was dying. Taken aback at the immensity of the situation and the question, and not fully truly knowing what was happening with his condition at the moment since the doctors didn’t really know either, Kim replied that she didn’t know for sure but the doctors were trying the best they could to help him and were going to keep trying. He nodded his head and squeezed her hands a few more times before he was taken back down into his sleep.
Kim sometimes has confessed she feels guilty from time to time in not quite being 100% honest with him in that split second of time and that she maybe robbed him of a chance to say something in the way of a goodbye, but how does anyone answer a question like that in that moment? Aren’t we all slowly dying, little by little, piece by piece, day by day? That question asked of her was truly a defining moment, and my beloved wife and the devoted daughter did the best she could under the circumstances and that’s all that anyone could ask. The next day, the doctors performed some more tests and determined his internal organs were beginning to shut down. The doctor reviewed his condition and the slim possibility of a recovery with Kim and Pat in the hospital room with Dennis sleeping a few feet away in his bed with the bright sunshine doing it’s best to peek through the drawn curtains. Knowing it was not going to get better, the family decided to stop life support that day after the rest of the family had been given the opportunity to come say goodbye. Life begins and ends in a moments notice and you never know what your last words or actions might be to those around you, so be careful with the moments you have.
Native American author Sherman Alexie recently wrote, “We need to make the dead better people than they were, because it makes us look better for loving them.” I don’t need to make Dennis appear to be better than he was in life because he wouldn’t stand for it if he were here, nor would he do the same for anyone else since he was a straightforward, no muss, no fuss type of guy. Dennis certainly had his faults, but no more than most and fewer than many. He was a good and decent man who lived an honest, simple life. He loved and supported his family in every way he knew while enjoying the smaller moments in life: planting and grooming his vegetable garden, shooting the bull with the clerks at the local post office, bringing his grandkids an ice cream treat from Dairy Queen on Wednesday nights, or sitting in his hunting blind in the Wisconsin woods. As we ‘stumble through time, and in our wandering minds,’ we might often replay scenes from our lives over and over trying to think of how we could have handled them in a better fashion, but the truth is you can’t fix the past, the past will fix itself in due time. Our memories ebb and flow from clarity to haziness from day-to-day, but we still have the memories and hold those people close to us and share the stories with those left behind. So in a certain way, those people never truly leave us, since as Bruce Springsteen likes to say, “If you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here.”
Below are some of my favorite songs to help remember those who have come and gone and the impact they leave on us. Listen, enjoy and remember those from your own life.
10) Conway Twitty, That’s My Job
9) Ben Harper cover’s Springsteen’s My Father’s House
8) The Highwaymen, Live Forever. Lifelong friends Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson cover Billy Jo Shaver’s great, great song…..”I’m gonna cross that river, I’m gonna live forever now.”
7) Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls- Ghost In My Home
To hear an excellent song that speaks to the heart of the matter, click on this link to hear Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls perform A Ghost In My Home.
6) John Prine covers his friend Steve Goodman’s My Old Man
5) Bruce Springsteen, You’re Missing. Written after the 9/11 tragedy and written for all the spouses and children left after their loved ones went missing in the towers. Taken from Saturday Night Live rehearsal performance 2002.
4) The Counting Crows, We Will Come Around
Have you seen the little pieces of the people we have been?
Little pieces blowing gently on the wind/Little pieces slowly settling on the waves
I’m one of a million pieces fallen on the ground
It’s one of the reasons when we say goodbye
We’ll still come around/We will come around
3) Randy Newman, I Miss You. From his Bad Love album, 1998. One of the few times he is not being ironic.
2) John Mellencamp, Life Is Short(Even In It’s Longest Day)
1)Steve Earle, Remember Me, from The Low Highway album. Written for his autistic son as a way of communication long after the song writer is gone.