I Like Him Better the Older I Get

Allan Dale Heuerman (Scoop to all who knew him) died on this date 10 years ago. He was 90 years old.

I loved him then and find that I like, love and respect him even more the older I get. It’s amazing how much wiser he got the older I got.

I wrote shortly after his death:

It was Valentine’s Day—our deceased mother Harriet’s birthday. Dad had a chest cold and was congested. He went to bed and felt strange. He laid down and tried to call for help. He could not get up, and no one heard him. He laid alone for 8 hours until he was found in the morning. He had, months ago, told the staff not to check on him at night as they woke him up.

The dreaded call, anticipated for years, came at 7:00AM on February 15, 2005. A nurse from the Masonic Home was on the other end of the line. She said dad had suffered a stroke. Dad was conscious and coherent. His speech was garbled, and he had some paralysis on his right side. The ambulance was on the way.

Dad was alert and in high spirits at the hospital. He joked with the staff and bragged of his advanced age (he never imagined he would live so long) although his speech was slurred and not understandable most of the time. The early prognosis was good: he would make a full recovery and return to independent life. A day later everything changed.

Tests revealed that what he swallowed went into his lungs, not his stomach. He would require a feeding tube. Everyone said he was a good candidate for the procedure and might still make a full recovery. Then again he might not regain full use of his ability to swallow, and there could be other problems.

My dad was a proud, dignified, and independent man who still lived on his own. His mind was active and engaged and he wanted to die knowing who he was. He was mostly wheel-chair bound and his sight was slipping away. He had lived in a nursing home long enough to see what his future was. He had watched his wife fade away slowly as the medical profession tried to fix her for too long. He wanted to go out on top.

He listened to the doctor’s advice—pro and con–and said “No” to the feeding tube. He then changed the subject and talked of his great-grandchildren. He was ready to leave this world. We respected his decision and admired dad for his courage and deep sense of dignity.

Dad returned to the Masonic Home and was put on “comfort care.” Family came from near and far to be with him. His mind was sharp and he recognized family and friends although communications were difficult. A great-grandson visited. Dad reached out to him, pulled him close, wrestled his watch from his arm and slipped it on the boy’s wrist. The room wept.

I cried as I watched the Masonic Home resident’s pilgrimage to his room to say their final goodbyes. Their aged and broken bodies traveled by walker, scooter, and wheel chair. With full spirits they shared their stories of our father with his family. I could tell they were experienced with death. His dinner companion of three years told how he had to be interviewed to sit with dad. He said, “Your dad wanted a dinner companion who could carry on a conversation.”

Dad seemed to be in the place between this and the next life. He drifted in and out of each world. He felt no pain. He did not suffer. Once he looked upward and said, “Harriet, Harriet,” paused and said, “Open the door.”

My wife Melanie felt compelled to express her emotions. She said, “Scoop, I love Tom and will take good care of him for the rest of his life. He is a good man although from the stories I hear he was not always a good boy.” Dad managed to say clearly, “Good man, good boy.” His final approval of me will strengthen me always.

A son said a last goodbye. Dad spoke. His words were mostly incomprehensible but the word “son” was clear. Dad raised a fist and encouraged his oldest son to go forward.

I went to my father for my final private moments with him. I expressed my love and gratitude for him. I thanked him. I said he should not have any regrets. He had lived a good life with a powerful legacy. He had taught us well. His work was done. I loved him.

Finally the last son arrived from a world away. He went in and spoke to his dying father who responded to his presence. The goodbyes were done. Everyone had their own moments with dad and have their own personal stories and memories they will cherish. Everyone was ready.

My brother later recalled the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” when an aged Ryan visited the grave of the soldier played by Tom Hanks, who had saved Ryan. Ryan was an average man who worked, raised a family, and lived an everyday life. Ryan knelt at the grave and said to his wife: “Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve led a good life.” My dad lived a good life and was a good man. And we told him so.

Dad drifted off to a peaceful sleep never to awake again. My sister spent dads last night with him and comforted her peaceful father in her arms.

The next morning the hospice nurse said the time was near. Children and grandchildren gathered around dad who was at peace. We spoke to him, wept together, kissed and touched our beloved father and held his hands as he gasped twice and took his last breath.

And then he was gone. His was a good death.

We buried our father’s ashes with our mothers two days later. My dad loved sports, especially baseball as it was “a thinking man’s game.” At the end of the brief interment service, we put on baseball hats, passed out Cracker Jacks, and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” A family member reached over and dropped a baseball into the hole. Dad had hit a home run in the game of life. We dropped our roses into the hole with dad and went home with our memories and the exquisite pain and love of a powerful 11 days together.

Dad’s energy now flows free, his consciousness encompasses all, and he is connected to all of life. Our sorrow is joined by gratitude for our time together and pride in dad’s leadership.

I feel a deep alchemy taking place in my soul. I feel a churning of many strong emotions as I redefine myself without him here for the first time in my 59 years. My dad’s nobility inspires within me greater courage, greater passion, and deeper authenticity. This is the greatest of dad’s many gifts to me. I thank him for it. I wish it for everyone.

So long dad.

Trouble on Ruby Road

We hit the road early on a day-trip to Arivaca, Arizona. Sixty miles south of Tucson, Arivaca—a birding hotspot–is 11 miles from the International Border with Mexico and is home to 700 residents including artists and descendants of pioneer families.

Arivaca Road—a curvy two-lane road surrounded by stunning scenery–took us 23 miles from Amado, AZ to Arivaca:

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We made quick visits to the weekly Farmer’s Market and monthly swap meet and visited the Artists’ Co-op:

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The Border Patrol checkpoints and heavy law-enforcement presence is not universally appreciated by the locals:

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Then it was off to a 1 ½ mile hike in the Arivaca Cienega:

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Next on our list was a hike along Arivaca Creek and Mustang Trail to look for wildlife. On the way, Melanie spotted an antique store: a must stop. I told the owner about our hiking plans.

“Do you have a gun?” he said.

“No,” I replied.

“I wouldn’t hike there without a gun. Illegals use that trail.” (Later a friend familiar with the hikes said she had not heard of any issues on these trails with crossers.)

“What about Ruby Road,” I asked.

Ruby Road is a scenic unpaved mountain road that goes 34 miles from Arivaca to interstate 19 about nine miles north of Nogales, AZ.

“Turn around and go that way,” he said. “It will take you about an hour.”

Off we went.

I spent 2001 living on the side of a mountain near Ouray, Colorado. I drove the 4-wheel roads into the mountains throughout the 14 months that I lived there. I loved the exploration, the challenges, and the photo opportunities. I was excited to take the drive. Melanie not so much: she reclined her seat so she wouldn’t have to look over the edges of the road.

The road was rough with water pooled in the low spots. I drove about 10-15 miles/hour.

Six miles down the road, we stopped and looked at Arivaca Lake:

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Further down the road was the ghost town of Ruby:

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The road was rocky. I began to wonder if we had a flat tire. Our SUV rode okay but sometimes it sounded funny. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to have a flat tire. Melanie later told me the same thing. She said, “I didn’t say anything because it might make it real.” Our responses were good examples of denial in action.

The hour drive was now over three hours.

I looked into the rear-view mirror. A border patrol truck was behind us. I pulled over so he could pass me. He stopped and said, “You have a flat tire. Good luck.” And off he went.

I found a mostly flat place to stop. Out came the spare tire. At first I couldn’t get the lug nuts to move. I put the wrench on one and jumped on it with 200 pounds.

The lug-nut turned and I did the same on the rest.

I got down to take the tire off. It wouldn’t move. I tried over and over and it would not move. Images of being stranded for hours and paying hundreds of dollars to get the SUV loaded on a flat-bed truck flashed through my mind.

Melanie was not happy. She feared smugglers and driving off a cliff; I feared her.

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A truck drove by. I chased it down the road and hollered, “Can you tell us where we are?” I knew where we were but didn’t know the roads to be able to describe where we were if we had to call for help.

The man and woman stopped and got out and we studied the map. He tried to get the tire off the wheel—it didn’t budge.

Just then another border patrol agent stopped. He tried—no luck. Then another agent came from the opposite direction. He tried—the wheel was stubborn.

I got a cell-phone signal. I called AAA. One of the agents took the phone and told the customer service person our coordinates.

The man who had stopped said, “I wish I had a hammer with me. I could hit the wheel and maybe loosen the tire.”

The second agent to arrive said, “I have a hunk of wood in the truck.”

He got under our car and whacked the tire with the heavy piece of wood. It moved!

We asked the Border Patrol agents for their names so we could write a letter to their bosses praising them. They declined. I shook hands with the man who had the “whack it” idea and hugged his wife goodbye.

Five minutes later, we were on our way down the final hills to interstate 19 and the drive back to our winter home. We called AAA—who had been great–and cancelled the service call.

It was late and the two tire stores we called were going to be closed soon. We decided to park the car until Monday and then go to buy a new tire.

On Sunday night, I noticed the other back tire was flat.

We called AAA the first thing on Monday morning. They came and inflated the tire. We hurried to a tire place before the tire went flat and purchased two new tires.

I should have known better. The first two 4-wheel-drive trips I took in 2001 resulted in flat tires. One at 12,000 feet and the other at about 10,000 feet in a driving rain. I quickly replaced all the tires.

I had forgotten the lesson I learned in the San Juan Mountains: don’t drive unpaved  roads that are not maintained with standard tires.

Big thanks to the Border Patrol agents, AAA, and the couple who stopped to help.

What Really Matters

Having a more interesting life, a life that disturbs complacency, a life that pulls us out of the comfortable and thereby demands a larger spiritual engagement than we planned or that feels comfortable is what matters most. James Hollis in What Matters Most

In his recent column, Building Better Secularists, New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote that secular writers…”are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it.”

Brook’s list of tasks a secularist would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Religious people inherit their creeds; secularists have to come up with their own convictions,
• Religious people inherit a community with rituals and practices that bind people together; secular people have to create their own communities and come up with their own practices to give them meaning,
• Religious people are directed to drop worldly concerns one day a week or for specified periods of time; Secular people have to create their own times of solitude to reflect on their spirituality, and
• Religious people are motivated by the love of God and their desire to please him; Secularists have to find their own motivation that will bring forth sacrifice and service.

Brooks concluded that secularists place unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves and risk drift and a loss of meaning in their own lives.

Paternalism is a belief system that requires that wisdom, knowledge and creativity come to people from others with greater power and authority. Most people grow up in paternalistic families surrounded by paternalistic clergy, bosses, coaches and teachers whose dictates they conform to. “Don’t think, just do what I tell you to do” is the spoken and unspoken command.

When young adults leave home, the organization often replaces the parent as the paternalistic force in their lives. Conformity is the first rule of organizations and institutions. Sometime around the middle of their lives, they may begin to rebel against such paternalism and enter the scary domain of thinking for themselves where they begin to doubt, question and challenge all those authority figures as they begin the process of becoming a mature person. Such a journey into a life of authenticity is difficult: a courageous and emotional odyssey of exploration to find who we really are—not who someone else tells us to be.

Religion and secularism aside, Brook’s burdens are everyone’s responsibility to ponder in life.

I do not want to mindlessly and without question follow creeds created by other imperfect men long ago; I want my life to be my own learning laboratory. I want to discover and articulate my own purpose for my life and the values I will live true to.

I don’t want to be put into a community by others and inherit its rituals and practices—rules and practices I must follow to be accepted; I need people but I want to choose my own community and seek counsel and fellowship from those who ring true to me.

I don’t want to act spiritual one day a week; I want to live my spirit daily, however imperfectly.

To be motivated by love and the desire to do good works is noble but so many seem to be motivated by fear, guilt, obligation and public appearances. I am motivated by the deep personal engagement I’ve had with myself over four decades pondering these and many other issues and questions of life (I’ve only scratched the surface). The higher emotions that motivate me, the passion that drives me and the aliveness I feel flow from that work as I seek the moral life.

I believe Brook’s burdens are among the lifetime work of an authentic life.

James Hollis: “…to have taken one’s journey through this dark, bigger, luminous, wondrous universe, to have risked being who we really are, is, finally what matters most.”

How Many Suffer for Us?

New York Times Columnist David Brooks:

Maybe you’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s about a sweet and peaceful city with lovely parks and delightful music.

The people in the city are genuinely happy. They enjoy their handsome buildings and a “magnificent” farmers’ market.

Le Guin describes a festival day with delicious beer and horse races: “An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.”

It is an idyllic, magical place.

But then Le Guin describes one more feature of Omelas. In the basement of one of the buildings, there is a small broom-closet-sized room with a locked door and no windows. A small child is locked inside the room. It looks about 6, but, actually, the child is nearly 10. “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.”

Occasionally, the door opens and people look in. The child used to cry out, “Please let me out. I will be good!” But the people never answered and now the child just whimpers. It is terribly thin, lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal a day and must sit in its own excrement.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” Le Guin writes. “Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

That is the social contract in Omelas. One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed. Most people feel horrible for the child, and some parents hold their kids tighter, and then they return to their happiness.

But some go to see the child in the room and then keep walking. They don’t want to be part of that social contract. “They leave Omelas; they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.”

How many in the world suffer and have endured deprivation and humiliation for the riches enjoyed by a relatively few of the planets inhabitants?

How many hundreds of worthy cultures have died because of the greed and addiction of one dominant culture? (See Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.)

How is it that the majority of American school children (K-12) live below the poverty level with many or even most doomed to lifetimes in the shadows of the American Dream?

How do we keep others in the basements of our organizations and institutions as each day we live out dysfunctional cultures?

Have my values, empathy and compassion become shriveled and desensitized and become the basement of my soul?

We are each innocent and guilty.

Few, if any, can simply walk away from the world view and culture we were born into and that envelops us and reaches far beyond our ability to control. Life today is too complex, unconscious and intertwined for us to escape.

We can, however, strive to be as mindful as possible of the harm we do to others by living the way we do. We can do what we can to illuminate the basements of our way of life. We may not be able to escape the systems of our lives but we can take small steps every day to see those systems clearly and move to the edges of them.

We can at least begin to learn how to live.