Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Bitter and the Sweet...

With my sense of humor, it's quite possible that most folks would think the picture on the left is a grade school portrait.

Not exactly, although some days my mother might think differently.

When people ask me what my childhood was like, I am not sure how to phrase the answer.

In some aspects, it was happy. I remember some things quite fondly, such as childhood pets, fun things my sister and I would do, goofy things we would do, hanging with my cousins, etc.

In other aspects, it was sad. I had trouble keeping friends at times. I could be quite anxious. I had trouble with school and trouble with depression. Living in the country when you weren't old enough to drive could be quite lonely. My grandparents lived right next door (just a cornfield away) and sometimes that was good...sometimes it wasn't.

Here's a mix of happy and sad for you. (Hey, at least it isn't about the election...sit down and shaddup.)

1. When our families still got along, the kid ratios were interesting. On my dad's side, I was the youngest granddaughter. The next youngest grandson was about 4.5 years younger than me.

However, his two oldest siblings had children around the same time he was a baby/toddler, so he was an uncle while he was still in diapers. So basically, there were four older cousins, my sister, then me...then a space...then the vast majority of my cousins. Add more stepcousins (who I always considered cousins without the "step") and you get many of my "buddies" throughout childhood/teen years.

We were always "banished" to the kids' tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but after a while, it wasn't a problem. It even got to the point where I would still join my cousins even if I qualified to sit with the adults.

We did goofy things together...we dressed my cousin Nick up as Boy George (complete with makeup) and he did a little lipsync routine in the barnyard for his dad...who wasn't thrilled about it, but gritted his teeth and endured it anyway. We had our own inside jokes, and we were happy with each others' company. When I was younger, I got sick of them hanging on me all the time, but as I got older, I welcomed it. I got to be a "big sister" of sorts. It was a good feeling.

2. One of my cousins was born with cystic fibrosis. His name was Michael, and he was my cousin V's oldest son. He was a sweet kid. He could be ornery, like all kids can be...but he and I bonded more and more throughout the years. As he got older, his disease also progressed, but he kept up with the rest of us as best he could.

Once I was in college, I was a little more mobile and could go see him at the UI Hospital in Iowa City whenever I wanted to. He would be in the Pediatrics Unit, in a ward for kids with respiratory disease. For a while, he'd go to the hospital only for "tune ups" once a year in order to get his medications adjusted, etc.

One time during a "tune up" session, I brought him a balloon sculpture kit. It consisted of a bunch of balloons, a hand-pump, and an instruction book that showed you how to make all kinds of things (animals, funny hats, etc). I figured it was right up his alley since he also liked drawing and making up stories.

The instruction manual that came with the kit specifically stated that you shouldn't try to blow up the balloons were to use the hand pump. Mike was doing just that when his respiratory therapist came into his room. She started in with, "You should be exercising your lungs instead of using that hand pump!"

Michael replied, "But...the instruction book says..."

"I don't care WHAT the instruction book says! Here, let ME show you," she chastised. She then picked up a balloon from the pile and placed it in her mouth.

She huffed and puffed. She stretched the balloon out numerous times. She huffed and puffed again, so hard her face was mottled red and purple. Mike and I just stared at her.

She finally stopped, and was gasping for air when Mike handed her the pump and said, "Wanna try this?"

Priceless. Truly priceless.

He died at age sixteen, the day after my 21st birthday in February 1990. He was on a downward spiral already, due to the fact that his lung collapsed the previous summer (a bad sign for a CF patient). He was in and out of the hospital all that fall and winter, and spent his last Christmas with us hooked to an oxygen tank.

There were funny memories of that Christmas...his sisters and cousin were playing jump rope with his oxygen tube, and he yanked the tube on the girls mid-jump, thereby messing up their game. You could hear them yell, "MIKEY!", and then he just chuckled..."heh heh heh". He rode with his siblings and his uncle on the four-wheeler...they were dragging around a piece of corrugated sheet metal behind the four-wheeler, so it was kind of a "power sled". Mike took a few laps around the yard and came in with a big smile on his face.

The last time I saw him alive and happy was a couple weeks after Christmas. I was working at a mall close to the University, and Mike had his dad take him to the mall to see me. They rolled past the store I was working at and he called my name.

Mike had been pumped full of steroids to help ease his asthma symptoms, but his body was so ravaged by the CF that he had a moon face on top of a matchstick body. He couldn't walk so he rode in a wheelchair instead. We talked for a few minutes while his dad stood by, and then he hugged me tight and said, "I love you."

"I love you too," I answered.

It was the last conversation we ever had.

The day the hospital called his family in, Mike was so frail that his bed seemed to swallow him up. He had an oxygen mask on, with dark circles under his eyes and shunts/IV tubes inserted under his tender skin. His eyes were closed, and he'd drift in and out of sleep.

We gathered around the bed...aunts, uncles, siblings, parents, say goodbye.

The nurses moved so quietly, you didn't even know they were there.

The lights were dim, which was probably a blessing...Mikey was so ravaged, he deserved peaceful dim light.

We still laughed and joked as only our family could, but you could hear the tears and sorrow behind them. One of my cousins just celebrated their baby's first steps, so Mike wanted to see his baby cousin Luke walk for the first time. Once he saw Luke's steps for himself, he slipped into a coma, from which he never awoke.

I consider the day Mike died as the day my childhood also died. I turned 21, but it was bittersweet. I wanted my cousins around me to perpetuate the fun memories, but one of "the pack" was gone, never to return. We got stronger and we still hung out, but it wasn't quite the same after Mike died.

I got married and divorced the first time. The cousins graduated from high school, college, and went through their own growing pains. Since the disagreements and battles came up between my father and their father/grandfather, the chasm deepened. When my father died, I mourned not only for his loss but for the loss of half of my support system. But I have my happy memories, and those are what I turn to when I'm a security blanket.

I guess to sum this entry up, I'm reminded of an episode of "The Simpsons" where Homer laments that there's no happy ending to the predicament of that week.

Marge replies, "It's an ending...that's enough."

So there you's an ending...that's enough.