Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. He has contributed pieces to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader and Playboy magazine. He has written books about the Farm Aid movement, travel and kick ass country music. His latest book is about minor league baseball in the Midwest.
He likes sunsets over cool waters.
Dec. 25, 2013—
Christmas Day may seem like a bad time to introduce your Mother to hospice care.
Do you hear what I hear?
But my brother and nephew have Dec. 25 obligations in Nashville, Tn. so we usually don’t celebrate Christmas until Dec. 26 when they come to Chicago. Medicare for Mom’s tool box of pills runs out at the end of the year and the results from her echocardiogram come in on Dec. 26.
Mom’s dementia has gotten worse over the last few months. Her 92nd birthday was Dec. 10 and that was a fleeting moment. Forgetting birthdays isn’t such a bad thing. Baseball poet Satchel Paige asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
She has trouble distinguishing her right from her left and the gotcha moment was Thanksgiving when she fell in my former bedroom of their west suburban home. The caregiver and I took one of those wide beige leather belts you use to move furniture, wrapped it around my Mom’s waist and lifted her up off the floor.
I knew it was time.
Mom still knows who we are and she loves posing for the camera. There is a calm radiance about her pure smile.
She likes to eat ice cream.
On a good day she can still crack a joke and then I feel guilty about our recent decision. She has at least a half-dozen health issues and on a bad day I think I’ve waited too long. Over the last couple weeks I’ve visited with Rich the hospice social worker. I told Rich I try not to get too high and not get too low. He says that is a good approach.
Rich has coached me on the next transition.
When the snow has cleared on Christmas Day I will hold my Mother’s hands as she once held mine. Her eyes are filled with a trust I was too self-absorbed to recognize as a younger man. I will speak to her in soft questions, which gently opens the door for her thoughts. There will be love in the room.
These steps will be supported by the arrival of my brother and nephew as it has been by visitors she has seen in recent days. The modest house rings true with a caring choir. Good family and friends are a year round thing.
I’m not going to be filing a journal or Tweeting about my Mom’s decline like NPR’s Scott Simon. I respect dignity and privacy too much. I also try to live in every moment of this journey and not to be distracted by outside forces. That is often very difficult, but I try. But if there is a note I can share with a wandering reader along the path of this holiday season than it is worth it.
The course of action , I am told by the social worker, is basic:
Gather all information.
And then make decisions with love.
And isn’t that the best Christmas gift of all?
Nov. 4, 2013—
I am that guy.
I’m the guy who sits alone at the Golden Apple on Saturday night. He always carries a newspaper or two. One newspaper has the latest stories, the other one may be from last Sunday. That guy is always trying to catch up.
He sits alone in a booth because he can spread out his newspapers.
He looks at the empty seat across from him and sees shadows. They can torment him.
I used to look at that guy from a distance and think, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.”
Suddenly last weekend I became that guy.
He talks about the Cubs even though they haven’t played a meaningful game since Memorial Day. Speaking of summer, don’t get that guy talking about the weather. You know you are that (old) guy when you start discussing five-day forecast projections with strangers.
That guy can get awfully fussy.
He orders the same thing from the menu which is a bowl of chicken noodle soup (first please), Greek chicken with rice and vegetables. Garlic toast on the side. That guy gets impatient if there’s any kind of delay.
When the Mexican cooks screw up his Greek chicken and that guy fidgets, the waitresses turn their heads back and forth like salt and pepper shakers. There are too many guys like that guy on a Saturday night at the Golden Apple.
The Golden Apple has never closed its door because of guys like this. The Greek diner is open on the family holidays of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. When he was a younger guy, that guy came into the Golden Apple after a few too many tequila shots on his summer time birthday.
Annette Hubbard has worked the Apple Sat. night shift the last 16 yrs.
I suppose my that-guyness hit me when a young couple walked hand in hand down Lincoln Avenue past the Golden Apple’s window. They looked at that guy like he was a fish in an aquarium. They quickly turned away from the scene in the otherwise empty booth of sprawled out newspapers. Is that guy planning some kind of weird event?
The Golden Apple is across the street from the beautiful St. Alphonsus church with bells that ring over regentrified blocks of mostly young people. That guy has been to a couple of splendid weddings at that church. Sometimes he thinks of the people he knew who got hitched there, encountered a rough stretch, but worked it out and don’t come to the Golden Apple anymore on Saturday nights.
My friend Annette Hubbard has worked the 2-11 p.m. shift for the last 16 years at the Golden Apple. She said 60 per cent of her customers are that guys, or I guess regular guys. Many of them prefer to sit on the diner counter stools. They don’t hog an entire booth like I do.
I asked Annette what they argue about.
"What’s on the television set (above the counter)," she answered. "Baseball, football, basketball.
"I switch to different stations after a little while."
That’s just how relationships can work, which is why there’s so many guys on a Saturday night at the Apple.
After dinner it is time to wind it up and reassemble the newspapers. Heaven forbid a bus boy takes your newspapers before you finish them.
That guy says goodbye to all the other guys, because, frankly, there are no female customers at the Golden Apple at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night.
You know you will see those guys again soon, the Cubs will still be losing, the soup will be warm and church bells will be ringing for someone.
Oct. 15, 2013—
If you are in rough current, you look for signs.
I live on the near West Side of Chicago where there are more coffee shops than grocery stores. More often than not I’m served coffee to go by slow moving, glum characters listening to Morphine.
This is no way to start the day.
On Monday morning I stopped at Swim Cafe for their fine coffee and oatmeal with brown sugar.
A new barista was behind the counter dancing to “I’m Coming Out.” She was in her inner disco zone as she was preparing a bagel.
I knew the dance-funk song but I had forgotten who had the hit. I looked it up when I got to my glum place of work——(Diana Ross, 1980; written by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic). Well, I was not hanging out at gay discos in 1980.
It was Ross’s second solo hit single and she had said the lyrics reminded her of getting out from Berry Gordy’s thumb.
I doubt the Swim woman was of age when “I’m Coming Out” was a hit. But the innocence of the scene made me smile. To her, it was likely a throw away moment. But for me, as I witness connections become increasingly difficult and spontaneity less appreciated, it stuck with me the most of the day.
I miss signs of random expression. They don’t even dance on the bar of the Matchbox anymore.
Where did our love go? (The Supremes, 1964).
You could get written up at some places for dancing to “I’m Coming Out” while you work. Coffee shops are filled with folks burrowed in laptops or punching away on their iPhones.
Her happy dance reminded me to continue to try to step out of myself.
The city’s seas are full of adventure. I need to remember that.
And for the rest of the day I tried to smile at strangers.
August 18, 2013—
Like the shadow of a strong tree, the tall Indian man crept up to me from behind.
I was struggling to get my ailing Mother into the front passenger seat of our car. She can no longer walk. She can no longer get out of her wheel chair without the aid of caregivers.
I was alone.
I have been through every moment of the long parental winter. Taking away the car keys. Falls. Heart attacks. Emergency room visits. But this tall Indian man shed meaningful light on a struggling moment.
“Let me help,” he said.
He moved with the help of a dark black cane. He gently set the cane down on the driveway of the medical center in West suburban Chicago.
I propped my Mother’s legs into the car. She wore new white Reeboks that looked ready for a morning jog. The man held her from under her arms and lifted her out of the doctor’s complimentary wheelchair. Together we were able to get my Mother comfortably into the car.
I thanked the tall Indian man and shook his hand.
“I have nothing,” he told me. “I lost everything in the accident.”
He unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a five inch vertical scar. “I had open heart surgery,” he said. “I had to start all over again.
“But part of that was learnng how to give with my heart.”
The tall Indian man told me he was 67 years old. He said he would be returning to see his doctor in another week. I did not ask him for his name.
I helped him with his cane and watched him walk alone to his car. I wondered about his family. But then in these bluest of moments, I learned it is possible for a stranger to become family.
And that is an unforgettable lesson.