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The Barb Blogs -- in Memory of My Wife, Who Died December 4, 2012

Barb Blog #1 -- The Eulogy

It's natural on such an occasion to look back and recount fond memories.  Barb died of a rare intestinal condition that she was born with, that could have killed her at any time, without any trigger -- just randomly.  So it's amazing that we got to know her and love her for as long as we did.  For me 39 years of marriage, for some of you here 62 years of friendship. Years filled with vivid memories and continuous quiet love.
 
But in her last couple days, Barb did some things clearly intended to encourage us to look ahead, not to be paralyzed by the emptiness of her absence, but to find a path forward.
 
On Wednesday, Barb's heart stopped three times. And three times the medics got it started again.  As she was lying there in the Emergency Room, and I thought there was still some chance she might come back -- a slim miraculous chance -- I couldn't help but think that yes, she had died three times, and that if and when she came back, what tales she would tell.
 
Recalling that now, I realize that she wouldn't talk about her experience at all.  No, she would talk about the people she had met on the other side and what mattered to them and what they needed.  
 
That's the kind of person she was, she is -- with an innate ability to connect with people, to emphathize, to care.  She connected, deeply, with all of us assembled here, and many others who can't be here now.  She would put our feelings and interests ahead of her own. She'd be there for us when we needed her.  
 
Sitting together on the sofa watching television on Tuesday night, she couldn't have had any clue that she would be dead in twelve hours.  But over the two days before, she had taken a series  of uncharacteristic steps that ended up helping those she would be leaving behind.
 
She finished her Christmas shopping, long before normal for her.  She designed our Christmas card, which she had always procrastinated on.  More often than not, we sent our card out after Christmas.  And she designed and printed 15 copies of another card as well, one intended to accompany a Christmas gift of a compass.
 
She had all of the Christmas gifts organized in stacks, gifts for nearly thirty people. But there was no way to tell what was for who.  That led us on a treasure hunt through her computer files and through the house, trying to find the list.  Which we did eventually find, tucked in a notebook she never used on a desk she never used.  And with the list, the family who had gathered to cope with the shock and grief were able to sort the gifts so they could be distributed at the wake, together with the Christmas card.  
 
Only the gifts weren't wrapped.  So someone ran to the store to buy gift bags.  And while she was gone, the others found a bag full of gift bags right there in the room with the gifts.  Totally uncharacteristic of Barb, who always wrapped her Christmas gifts; but just what was needed for this totally unlikely circumstance.
 
As for the cards about the compass, she had never mentioned them to me.  I found them on her desk after she was dead.  The picture on the front and the basic product description came from Amazon where she bought the physical compasses.  But I have no idea where the rest of the text came from.  Two related poems not to be found on the Internet -- where most everything can be found.  She may have written them or have seen them somewhere and loved them so much that she made them hers.  And those words were just what I needed to help me through that day, and the day after, and that could serve as inspiration for all her friends and relatives.  I'd like to share those words with you now:
To Help You Find Your True North
to find north
one must know where south is
to find south
one must be willing to dive
~
sinking
to
the
watery
depths
where
monsters
of
the
mind
thrive
~
to navigate
not by sight
but by sound
to discern
not by fact
but by mystery
~
dive ~ dive deep
for therein lies the way
of the spirit
The Compass
Essential to guide a man's travels,
In journeys o'er sea and the land.
Its needle, a simple reminder
O' the Power inside every man.
If each could only remember,
The Compass of mind is the heart,
So quiet it speaks, if you listen
Love is its passionate art.
Compass roses are little assistance,
Seeking Truth each man must find,
If drive for Success tears the man's heart
He's lost his moral compass of mind.

Barb Blog #2 -- Afterthoughts


Increasingly I'm realizing how very lucky we were.  When Barb had appendicitis ten years ago, the doctors had a hard time diagnosing her because her appendix was on the left side instead of the right.  I thought it was appendicitis and said so loudly.  But I'm not a doctor.  And the doctors had never seen an appendix on that side.  Her pain came and went.  (She had a very high tolerance for pain).  And right before they rolled her away to get an MRI, she wanted to go home, because she thought the problem had gone away.

The MRI showed that it was appendicitis, and they did emergency surgery.  The appendix was beginning to rupture as they took it out.  Some toxic material (no one knew how much) leaked into her abdomen.  We had to keep watch carefully afterward, in case for complications.  A further delay of less than a minute in doing that surgery would have probably led to her death.  It didn't feel real at that time.  Death didn't feel real.  We just felt so good that she came out okay, that we didn't focus on the fact that it was a very close call.

The doctors explained that her bowel was not firmly attached to the body.  It was "untethered", floating freely.  Hence the appendix wasn't where it was supposed to be.  They did not expect any further problems from that anomaly, which she was born with.

Then, four years ago, one of our sons had a similar problem -- twisted intestine -- and nearly died from it.  We were very fortunate, but probably didn't fully grasp the enormity of the risk.

So this was the third potentially fatal incident, from the same basic cause.  This was the third time when we needed a hail-mary pass with just seconds remaining.  Only this time it didn't work.

Strangely, that thought makes me feel a little better.  (Not much, but I'll grasp at anything).  The notion that she could have died from this cause at any time, without warning, is abstract, unreal.  But the notion that we were lucky to have her for the last ten years hits home.  For me, those years were the best of our marriage -- particularly the last three, when she was home and we had much more time together than ever before, and grew much closer together, and had a hell of a lot of fun together...

Barb Blog #3 -- Calm at the Middle of the Storm


Until  smashed in the face with the hammer of death, I thought and acted, naively, as if I and those I love were immortal.  Surviving near-death misses felt normal, and death was an unimaginable horror, that I tried not to think about.

In contrast, Barb understood the pain of loss -- her brother Bobby, Nana, Papa, and Anne.

Now I understand why she repeatedly, over the years, told me that she wanted to go first.

She understood life and death deeply, at an emotional level

Surprisingly, as she often told me, her favorite movie of all time was the original, 1934, version of "Death Takes a Holiday".  (There was a recent remake called "Meet Joe Black" that she didn't like as much). As I recall, when Death (a humanlike character) decides (I forget why) to not let anyone die, that blessing turns out to be a disaster, with many people mortally ill and in deep pain, lingering on and on.  At the end, life and death return to normal.

When death came, without warning, on some unconscious level, she wasn't surprised, and she wasn't afraid.  She lay down quietly -- without a scream.  She relaxed, and the pain went away.

Barb Blog #4 -- Premonition?


On Friday, November 16, the nursing home where my father lives sent him to the hospital (by ambulance) because of swelling in his right leg, which they (being cautious) thought could have been a sign of a blood clot.  I was in the emergency room with him from about 10 PM to about 3 AM.  It turned out to be a false alarm.  That incident made me less inclined to go to an emergency room unless I knew there was a real problem.

The next day, for reasons unknown, I got a rare urge to to sort through boxes under the eaves,  I needed to see if by rearranging or eliminating unneeded/unwanted stuff, I could make room for other stuff, which was cluttering the upstairs hall.  I went through a few old boxes, left behind our kids. I wound up putting together one box of trash -- not enough to make any difference.  At that point, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed with sadness, like the grief I feel now, with wave after wave of uncontrollable tears.  At the time I attributed that to sadness at thoughts of good times past ("where are the snows of yesteryear").  But the emotions were far out of proportion to the event.

It was when carrying that one box down the front stairs to the trash, and feeling another such surge of sadness, that I lost my balance and fell, spraining my left ankle and right leg.  I didn't go to the emergency room.  This was recognizable -- something that would heal on its own over time.

Three weeks later, when hobbling my way to the pulpit to read the eulogy, it occurred to me that the accidental stagecraft of my limp made the moment even more poignant and dramatic.  My lameness was a tangible/visible tribute to how much she meant to me, and how empty and weak I felt without her.

Barb Blog #5 -- Public Health Data and the Importance of Autopsies to Determine Causes of Death

Barb died of a twisted intestine, and her son nearly died of a similar condition, four years ago.  Apparently, there is no record of another instance of a parent and child both having this rare condition.  Hence the condition is deemed non-hereditary.

According to health statistics, it is extremely rare for the underlying abnormality to lead to serious problems.  But there is no simple test to determine if a healthy person has this abnormality; and only if someone suffering from twisted intestines is operated on or if there is an autopsy would anyone ever correctly guess the cause of death.  If she hadn't been operated on, Barb would have gone down in the stats as "heart failure".

Because so few autopsies are performed and those are done mainly in the case of deaths deemed suspicious from a legal viewpoint, our cause-of-death health data may be very inaccurate.  And such inaccuracy could lead to flawed diagnoses and misguided distribution of health resources and of emphasis is medical education, all of which could have long-term negative impact on public health.

Suggestion:
As an experiment, randomly select some large sample of deaths and perform autopsies.  Compare those results with pre-autopsy estimates of the cause of death.  Based on the discrepancy found, extrapolate the overall effect on cause-of-death health statistics.  If the difference is significant, perform more autopsies to generate even better data.  Perhaps mandate that a certain percentage of all deaths be autopsied -- to further refine the data as an early warning of previously unknown or underestimated health risks.

Based on the new data, revise recommended treatments and estimates of risks from various conditions and estimates as to whether various conditions can be inherited.

I am not a doctor, not a medical researcher.  But it seems obvious that this kind of investment could significantly benefit public health.  It is hard to understand why this hasn't happened yet.

Barb Blog #6 -- Farewell Messages


Message One:

On the desk in the bedroom, in the same notebook where I found the Christmas list, I just found a handwritten poem on the first page.  Barb recorded it sometime in 2010). The other pages of the notebook have miscellaneous practical notes and scores of gin rummy games we played.

Here's the text of the poem:

Miss me, but let me go

When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me,
I want no rites in a gloom filled room!
Why cry for a soul set free!
Miss me a little, but not too long
And not with your head bowed low!
Remember the love that we once shared.
Miss me, but let me go.

For this is a journey we all must take
And each must go alone.
It's all apart of the Master's plan
A step on the road to home.
When you are lonely and sick of heart
Go to the fried, we know
And bury your sorrows in doing good deeds,
Miss me, but let me go.

-- Author unknown

I checked online and found that the poem is by Edgar A. Guest.

You can see it at a site called funeral-poems.net  http://www.funeral-poems.net/funeral-poem/miss-me-let-me-go

Message Two:

Another notebook on the same table has just two entries, the address of a friend and the "goals" list below, which is from September 9, 2005.

Goals:

Find what you love to do
Do what you love
Spend time with people you like
Surround yourself with things you like

Be discrete -- don't tell everything!

Message Three

Tucked in one of the notebooks, on stationery from AED Academy for Educational Development, Conference Center (probably something she went to for MSH, hence 3+ years old):

1) Pop the cork!
  a) Open Mind
  b) Tough it out
  c) Requires skill and balance
  d) Que sera -- sera

This must have been a question with multiple-choice answers from some a personality quiz given to participants.  But the phrase "pop the cork" and all four definitions seem to match her.

Richard Seltzer

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