The Crossroads

I just lost my dad.  One minute, he was talking, walking, and shopping with me; the next day he was someone I didn’t know.  Overnight, his dementia had taken hold and he was lost to us.  I’ll never know if it was a new prescription that pushed him over the edge, or someone stealing his wallet at his assisted living center (which held his lucky $20 bill from his Navy days in the 1950s).  I’ll never know the answer and I’ll never gather enough facts to know.  This doesn’t exactly bring me peace.

Was it part of God’s plan to take this wonderful, kind man that everyone loved so quickly?  Had God heard my prayers for mercy as I saw him headed down the slippery slope of decline?  For days in the hospital, I sat talking to dad.  Even though he was unresponsive and incapable of our usual communication, I could see that parts of “dad” were still there.  The doctors were not forthcoming with information and it was a constant struggle to get the facts and the truth — two things my tenacity was going to attain.  I watched for days as the prognosis grew worse, until finally I lifted a prayer begging for answers … any kind of answers.

The neurologist came into dad’s room and he was, quite literally, heaven-sent.  He answered all of my questions to the best of his ability.  He told me dad was not coming back and I needed to make a decision as dad’s healthcare power of attorney.  An infection had started to brew and they wanted to know if we should treat it or not.  Fortunately, one of the greatest blessings in all of this is that mom and dad left detailed living wills/advanced directives, spelling out what they wanted and what they didn’t.

There was no way dad wanted to live like this, and his living will guided us to the final decision that allowed him to die a natural death as he requested.  As my sibling said, “It was the hardest, easiest decision to make, because dad had told us what he wanted.”  We honored his wishes, as hard as it was.  Imagine the level of guilt we would have to bear the remainder of our lives, had dad not gone to the trouble to have this for us, guiding us through a very dark and sorrowful time.

Moving him to Hospice House was the best decision.  Dad was so peaceful there.  I am convinced the nurses and CNAs had angel’s wings under their scrubs; yet another blessing during this time of crisis.  I stayed with dad in hospice for two days.  I talked non-stop (aided greatly by the constant flow of caffeine), I sang to him “Amazing Grace” and other songs he loved.  I asked for forgiveness for the times I wasn’t the best kid or short on patience, and I reminded him of all the great family memories.  I thanked him for instilling in us kids the morals and values that have carried us so far.  I asked him to watch over my family, give mom a big hug, and touch the stars for me.  It is hard to carry on a solo conversation.

A couple of hours before he passed, he gave me a great gift.  He opened his eyes and locked onto mine.  He hadn’t done that in a week.  Giving dad the biggest smile that I could through the tears, I told him that I was right there with him and that I was okay (he always worried about me).  I was sad but okay and was going to be okay.  I told him “I love you” as I had at least 100 times that day.  For a man whose brain could no longer function and who lost his powers of speech, what he did next was a very special gift.  Eyes locked on mine, his lips mouthed the words, “I love you” right back.  In human terms, that was impossible, but not to me.  That was a parting miracle and one I will never forget.

Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.  It is a sorrowful time for me and my family, but dad always said, “Life is for the living,” and mom always said, “This too shall pass.”  I think they were both right, as always.

© 2012 Julie Hall

This Part of Life Doesn’t Come With An Instruction Manual

I fell to pieces last night … literally an unrecognizable, weepy being frozen in my bathroom.  My husband heard my sobs over his ever-increasing TV volume and shoot ’em up Army movie, so I must have really let it all hang out.  To his credit and excellent nature, he came to comfort me without saying a word, understanding the pain inflicted on this lovely family.

I always thought I was incredibly strong, but when the realization hits that you are helpless against a loved one’s disease, there is no pain quite like it.

My dad is battling Alzheimer’s and he is losing.  I can see it now and the heartbreak is almost more than I can bear.  He answers the door when the telephone rings, pushes buttons on the telephone to lower the volume on the TV, and just fell last week and broke his nose.  There’s more, but I won’t bore you.  Dad is still exceptionally conversational and cares for himself very well.  He’ll talk on virtually any topic, but politics and gardening seem to be his favorites.

Recently, for what seemed like an eternity but only took a few seconds in reality, he forgot that I was his daughter.  Then a moment later, he caught himself.  That is the first time that ever happened.  I somehow managed to keep a poker face only through the grace of God, I’m sure, then managed to walk out to my car where I promptly called my brother and let it all hang out again.

I am not complaining.  I am hurting.  I hurt for dad who never deserved this horrid affliction.  I hurt for him because he is in the stage where he knows something is amiss; it seems like a hellish limbo to me.  Truth be known, I hurt for all the people out there that have this disease, and for all of us that are dealing with it on a daily basis.  “It must be the work of the devil,” I told my husband.  “He must be in such a lonely place.”

On the one hand, I praise the doctors for knowing as much as they do and helping as much as they can.  On the other hand, I curse them because they don’t know enough.  My mom made her exit from life rapidly, and I am seeing what a blessing that was.

As with anything negative, it is the wise who will turn it into something positive.  Because of this life experience, I can now add another dimension to my work as The Estate Lady: assisting my clients who are also dealing with this same issue.  I can most definitely relate, and now I can comfort them too.  It has long been said that in comforting others, you also will be comforted.  I certainly hope so.  I feel another book coming on.  I’m open to title suggestions ….

© 2012 Julie Hall

We Found This Unforgettable Letter in an Estate

“Please Take Care of This for Me” – borrowed from Robert N. Test, author

“The day will come when my body will lie determined by doctors to be without life.  When that happens, do not attempt to instill artificial life into my body by the use of a machine.  And don’t call it my deathbed.  Call it my Bed of Life, and let my body be taken from it to help others lead fuller lives.

Give my sight to the man who has never seen a sunrise, a baby’s face, or the love in the eyes of a significant other.  Give my heart to the person whose own heart has caused nothing but endless days of pain.  Give my blood to a teenager who was pulled from the wreckage of a car, so he might live to see his grandchildren play.  Give my kidneys to one who depends on a machine to exist.  Take my bones, every nerve and muscle to find a way to make a crippled child walk.

Explore every corner of my brain.  Take my cells if necessary, and make them grow so one day a speechless boy will shout at the crack of a bat and a deaf girl will hear the sound of rain against her window.

Burn what is left and scatter my ashes to the winds to help the flowers grow.

If you must bury something, let it be my faults, my weaknesses, and all prejudice against my fellow man.

Give my sins to the devil; give my soul to God.

If, by chance, you wish to remember me, do it with a kind deed or word to someone who needs it.  If you do all that I have asked, I will live forever.”

© 2012 Julie Hall

The Hawk

I sat in the car at the parking lot of the assisted living where we just placed Dad, and was feeling very alone one wintry morning last week.  With the heat on full blast and tissues in hand, I said a prayer in the car to take away some of the tears and difficult changes my family has gone through lately.  After wiping my eyes, I looked up and saw her.

There she stood at the very top of a large, leafless maple tree with the morning fog and the chill of winter all around her.  She was the very definition of strength and majesty, looking as if she owned the universe.  But there was a fragility about her too.  In her solitude, she surveyed her surroundings with confidence, but I am sure even a bird of prey has doubts.  After all, she didn’t know where her next meal was coming from.  I felt sorry for her that she was all alone, not fully understanding that is their nature.

I started to see a parallel between myself and the hawk.  It happens to all of us as we walk through life.  We find ourselves lonely at times and our lives feeling barren due to certain circumstances.  For me, it was my mother’s recent passing and placing Dad in assisted living.  For the majority of us, this is the ebb and flow of things, and we have good times and not so good times.  If we are wise, we grow with these circumstances so we can be an example to those around us, especially our children and grandchildren.

This hawk reminded me that there are times we have to walk this journey solo in order for us to have a more meaningful understanding of life, grow strong, remain strong, and just keep looking for the good in what comes next.  As I put my car in reverse, the hawk suddenly swooped down and was victorious in finding her next meal.  Patience and the passage of time paid off.  We just need to remember that.

© 2011 Julie Hall

Sometimes There is No Second Chance

We are mortal beings.  On a subconscious level, we all know our days are finite.  Why then don’t we appreciate more the people close to our hearts, and tell them each and every day that we love them?  Why do so many put it off and procrastinate?

I’ve had hundreds of clients dealing with past hurts, power struggles, estrangements, and unresolved issues.  Then someone dies suddenly; you can no longer converse with them in person once they leave this earthly plane.  It is then impossible to make things right and you carry that heaviness with you the rest of your life.

I didn’t know my mom was going to die so suddenly four weeks ago.  My parting words to my mother in this life were as we parted every day.  “Take care, mom.  I’ll see you soon.  I love you.”  But her response was what has given me peace, even though she passed 8 hours after this conversation.  She simply said, “I love you too.” and said it with conviction.

Though I am in a fog of grief right now, and dealing with a dear father who is struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, I’ve seared into my mind those joyous last words between mother and daughter.  These words made me understand she always felt that way and clearly demonstrated the love between us.  What a beautiful gift I shall cherish the rest of my days.

Pick up your cell phone, and call a loved one you have been meaning to call for a while.  Call your mom or dad if you are fortunate enough to still have them, and say “I love you.”  Sometimes tomorrow never comes.

© 2011 Julie Hall

The Secret Keeper

My father used to play a game with me as a small child.  When he wanted to know what mom had bought for his birthday or Christmas, he would say, “Julie will tell me what mom bought.  I can always get it out of Julie!”  I had been sworn to secrecy by my brother because I was the little tattletale in the family.  But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep that secret.  Little did I know that as an adult, life would ask me to not only keep them, but to take them to my grave so no one would get hurt.  This story, I can share…

Steven was only 43 years old.  He was top executive, divorced with children, and lived as a bachelor in a very nice home with lovely furnishings.  Steven had a good life and all that he could want or need: a stable line of work, choice real estate, comfortable lifestyle, children, etc.  But something went very wrong along the way.

One night, for no known reason to his family or friends, Steven ended his life.  There was no note found or any indication for the reasoning behind his actions.  We were brought in to sell and clear out the home completely.

During the clearing out phase, I personally found a stack of letters that were found in a closet.  They were in no particular order and wide open.  Many of them were notes and cards obviously exchanged between sweethearts.  Unsure whether to dispose of these or not because the significant other might want them, I opened up the top card only to reveal words that might have offered a reason why he ended his life.  I felt an overwhelming responsibility to do the right thing, but what was the right thing in this case?

There were two choices: I could dispose of the items and keep this secret locked away in my head forever, or I could call the family and somehow search for the right words to explain my findings in a very delicate manner.  Having no previous experience with this particular scenario of suicide, I sat in silence contemplating the situation that had been laid upon my lap.  I had in my hands potential evidence as to why this distraught man ended his life, and my heart grew heavy with the emotions he must have been experiencing.  When my hands held his handwritten note, I could feel he was completely shattered.

After what seemed like an eternity of contemplation, I knew exactly what I had to do.  The family had the right, no matter how painful, to know something as serious as this; I had to give them the opportunity to make the choice themselves.  Calling the closest relative from my cell phone, I wanted to sound calm and reassuring.

When the relative picked up the phone, I greeted the relative and explained that I was still in the home working.  “I’ve found a letter I think you may want to see, but I need your permission to send it to you.  I believe it could offer you an answer as to the reason Steven is no longer with us.  Would you like me to FedEx it out to you?”  Much to my surprise, the family rejected my offer to send it to them and did not want to know the reasons behind his actions.  Some things are just too painful.  His words are forever etched in my mind to be buried with me later in life, unknown to anyone who loved him.

© 2011 Julie Hall

Mementos of Killed Marine Sold By Mistake

This was the headline in our local paper a few days ago.  The young widow accidentally sold a suitcase at a yard sale that contained photos and special items that were of her late Marine husband with their children.  I thought to myself, “Oh no … those photos are irreplaceable and probably gone forever.”

The article was a monumental effort across the country to appeal to anyone who might find it, as the buyers at the yard sale told the widow they would probably sell the suitcase at a flea market.  To my knowledge, it has not yet been found.

A couple of things come to mind:

  1. We feel for this woman and all she has gone/is going through, and it was most likely a simple oversight that she forgot to open the suitcase prior to selling.  As a professional, I  can honestly say it’s vital to leave no stone unturned.  Whether you are sorting through a loved one’s belongings, or you hire a professional, everything must be gone through with a fine tooth comb.  You never know what you’re going to find.
  2. Professionals in my industry already know to sift through everything, but family might be experiencing emotions too strong to deal with it at the moment, feel as if they are in a fog for a while, or can’t quite get themselves to sort through the items in the depth they should — through no fault of their own.  We understand grief and have compassion for our clients.  Sometimes, an objective professional party can help the family through that, and ensure that everything has truly been sorted and gone through, so accidents like this don’t occur.

My heart goes out to this widow and her children, and I sincerely hope that whoever buys the suitcase with the precious photos of the fallen Marine and his children will find a way to get them back to their rightful owner.

© 2011, The Estate Lady

Make a Plan for the Ashes

Several years ago, I was preparing for an estate sale and found cremated remains in the bottom of a china hutch.  They were handed to the son, who promptly tossed them under the kitchen sink right in front of me.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The ashes were tossed in with the Comet, Cascade, rags, and Brillo pads.  I was aghast!  How could anyone do such a thing?

I called the attorney’s office to report this horrible act and offered something above and beyond my call of duty.  I offered to appropriately scatter the ashes in a beautiful place and say a prayer for this deceased person.

Today, years after the fact, I received a call asking me to handle the remains because no one else will.  It is a strange thought: here I am, a perfect stranger to the decedent, yet I care more about him than his own family.  I know there are laws concerning this and I will do my due diligence to appropriately handle this out-of-the-ordinary mission that has landed in my lap.  Surely a family member would care enough to tend to this need?  Sadly, not one of them does care.

This should be a reminder to us all that when a loved one is cremated (including our beloved pets), plans must be made in advance for their final resting place.  What if the one who has the ashes in their possession dies and no one in the family knows what to do with them?  This is especially important in blended families.  It’s not something we think about often, but a plan will ensure that the proper procedure will be followed when the time comes.

© 2011, The Estate Lady

When Your Box Gets Too Heavy, Drop It!

My teenage daughter has recently become my teacher, and I her student.  Life has been challenging for many this past year and our family is no exception.  Many of my clients have suffered illness, loss of a loved one, and financial trouble in the last year.  With the new year here, we have a clean slate and a chance to un-do, re-do or make better than last year. 

Lately, life has been a little weird.  So much uncertainty.  Turning on the TV means risking depression and anxiety just by watching 5 minutes of the news.  When will it ever be like it “used to be?”

Not long ago, I had an emotional moment thinking of my father who has Alzheimer’s.  It all seemed to come crashing down on me.  My daughter came home from school and caught me during a mini-meltdown.  I have always believed it’s okay to let children see their parents cry.  We are not infallible, but we try to always be strong for them.  Then one day, the tables turn and they are strong for us.

Suddenly, she looked at me with the eyes and demeanor of a grown woman.  “Mom, there is no need for you to get yourself so upset.  What will be, will be, and you can’t control that.  Your box has gotten too heavy, so drop it.”

“What box?” I thought.  She went on to further explain that the box represents our lives and all the junk inside weighing the box down is the parts of it we need to let go of.  “Just drop the box, Mom.  You need to be more like me.  Let it go until you need it.  Don’t carry it around with you.  Sometimes it just gets too heavy and you can’t carry it anymore.”

And the thought occurred to me to count the blessings, not the tears.  When the box gets too heavy, I am learning to drop it and deal with something more positive.  Many boxes out there are getting heavier by the day.  Maybe you can learn from my daughter too!

© 2011 Julie Hall

Grief Needs a Shoulder to Lean On

Let me offer some compassionate support for those who are going through grief over the loss of a parent.  Having to handle all the details of a funeral and the liquidation of your parents’ estate ranks high on the lists of stressors that can wreak havoc emotionally.

You and your siblings really need a lot of shoulders to lean on during this time.  This is the time to make withdrawals from your emotional bank accounts of close friends.  If you are active in a church or synagogue, let your pastor or rabbi know what you’re going through, and be open to any acts of kindness from your congregation.

Grief can bring with it the symptoms of clinical depression, yet you’ll feel as if you have to be the strong one for the sake of your family.  It’s not a sign of weakness to meet with a counselor and unload what’s happening during this stressful time. 

With nearly every client, I’ve found myself holding the hand of an angry, heartbroken, grieving son or daughter.  Many are in a very vulnerable state, feeling angry and lashing out because of all the decisions that their parents did not take care of while they were alive.  Then their anger turns to guilt because their parents are no longer here, and they feel guilty because they feel angry.

You really do have to be strong and think straight as you go through your parents’ home for the last time, so take advantage of resources — personal and professional — that can help you cope with the sadness and stress.

Keep in mind: you don’t have to go through this alone.  There is reliable and trustworthy help that can make this painful experience go smoothly.

© 2010 Julie Hall