“Oh My God, Would You Look At Those Eyes!”

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A woman I had never met before, standing near me, yelled those titled words after I answered her question by replying I had not worked on the jigsaw puzzle that was on top of a small table I sat near. “Lean closer”, she commanded. I obeyed and learned in towards her face.  “I’ve never seen such pretty gray eyes in all my life!” she exclaimed for all to hear. “Thank you” I replied, thinking this might be the very first compliment I ever received from apparently a color-blind female. I always descibe my eyes on official documents as hazel; however they change color slightly favoring either the colors blue or green, depending on what I am wearing. I believe this is typical for most people with eyes of similar colors. “Are you new to the community”? she asked. I told her I was just visiting for a short while. “Well, you should come back and see me. I could look at your eyes all morning.” “Thanks, eh, oh look, my meeting is being called. Nice chatting with you. Goodbye.” I made a hasty escape down a short hallway into a small conference room. Little did I know then that my experience that had just taken place with the “eye” lady would have been welcome relief after what I experienced during the forthcoming hour. But I am slightly ahead of myself, so let me start with some background.

On the 25th of this month, it will be five months since my wife died; five long, depressing, boring, unhealthy, energy-sapping, unsettling months. My loving family and friends have been generously attentive, but it has been difficult to shake the blues. Someone suggested I try an outside bereavement support group and recommended one that meets on the first Tuesday of every month in a conference room at a nearby hospital. I learned about it with three weeks remaining in that month, so I marked the calendar and patiently waited. The weeks passed and finally the first Tuesday arrived and I left the house optimistic that this experience would help. I arrived at the designated meeting room and was greeted with a dark, empty space with tables and chairs and spoiling food on tables left-over from an event I guessed from the evening before. I turned on the lights, sat down and waited the obligatory fifteen minutes before returning to the receptionist to report the situation. She made a phone call to someone who informed her that I should return and someone would be there right away. I did so and waited another fifteen minutes before leaving the hospital shaking my head in frustration.

My next foray into group support meetings happened recently at a hospice office on the grounds of a 55-plus community called Century Village. Those unfamiliar with Century Village communities probably have heard a joke commonly told about Florida; it is the state people go to die. If Florida is the state, Century Village is the exact location. Huge numbers of condo buildings filled with people whose hair colors most closely resemble a New England fall landscape (reds, yellows, rust and an occasional sky blue), who spend their sunset years congregating with the same people every day in various group activities like bingo, movies and jigsaw puzzles.

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This particular group meets once a week and when I arrived at the security gate, I informed the guard I was attending a bereavement group support meeting and I needed directions; he asked me what “bereavement” meant. I told him in as few descriptive words as possible. He checks with others in the office and then reports he never heard of the group and he doesn’t know the address. I immediately felt the feeling of security one discovers by having live people at the gate looking out for them. “You don’t look like you will steal anything, so just drive straight ahead to the community center and ask about your meeting” he advised. I found the location accidently within viewing distance of the guard office and arrived ten minutes early. There was a reception area, and an open area with table and chairs where on this particular morning there about ten people sitting around drinking coffee and talking. I sat at a table that had on top of it an in-progress jigsaw puzzle. I sat down and took a big gulp of coffee. “Sara, I forgot to tell you how good your meatloaf was this week. Lots of people don’t know how to make good meatloaf, but yours was excellent. Some people make the inside too soft, and others make it as hard as a brick, but yours was perfect.” I thought this might be the best food-related pick-up line I ever heard. And what was Sara’s hopefully gracious and come-hither response? “No, it wasn’t my best…I burnt it.” Silence took over the space. Not for long however, as suddenly a shout uncomfortably close to me rang out “Oh my God, would you look at those eyes!”

The group’s facilitator is a Buddhist priest named Karen who arrives ten minutes late and whose friendly and warm smile seems permanently etched on her face. She also seems to bounce when she walks, not has high as Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger, but certainly noticeable. Jane sits down at the table seemingly talking to no-one in particular complaining about how rude it is to be late for a meeting, “but we should not talk about it any further”. While five others are in the process of sitting, Jane starts up again verbalizing that it is neither right nor polite to be late, and again closes her own solo discussion by cutting off debate on herself. I turn to a man sitting to my left and ask if he realizes Jane is the only one talking about “lateness” and he smiles and acknowledges the scene. There are seven of us, five women and two men, not including the still smiling Karen. The men have each lost a wife; two women have lost their husbands; one woman lost a brother, and the last woman lost a son. We take turns introducing ourselves and I am the newcomer to the group and the one with the freshest death date. I don’t say anything for the next hour as I decide to simply listen and try to derive some nugget of wisdom from what others say their experience with grief.

Jane lost her husband ten years ago and offers a comment or two immediately after each person talks which I would characterize as all being “firm grasps of the obvious”.  She can’t sit still and is constantly either reaching for a Kleenex, pulling on her sweater arm, coughing or fidgeting in her chair. Jane is an irritating woman who I believe would be helped greatly and immediately with both a Prozac and a martini…at the same time.

Betty lost her son to an accident five years ago and his birthday is this month. Truly sad story told by a soft, lovely woman who misses her son very much. She was encouraged to keep talking about him and continue to  recognize his birthday. Good advice.

Ben lost his wife three years ago and been attending this support group for quite a while. He described her as “spending everyday in the kitchen” and he really missed her cooking. I felt an immediate urge to run out of the room and see if the meatloaf lady was still there so I could arrange an introduction. I controlled my urge and sat in silence.

Rachael lost her brother to illness over a year ago and still misses him very much. She tries to talk about it at home and her husband just tells her to get over it. “He tells me my brother is dead and never coming back, so I should just get over it.” I immediately think I want to beat her husband over the head with something that would really hurt, and my heart really goes out to this woman who only finds relief by coming to this once-a-week meeting.

Katherine still mourns the loss of her husband nine months ago and feels she is going backwards in the healing process. She feels more depressed as time goes by, not less, and really misses her husband, who was ninety-two at the time of his death. NINETY-TWO. Yes, I know the feeling of loss when a spouse dies after many years of being together, but hello, ninety-two?! I waited for the facilitator to say something about the comfort to be derived from the knowledge he lived that long, hoping in fact he was not a felon who had served forty years in prison, but all I heard from the ever-smiling Karen was “it’s a mistake to think that grieving is going backwards. On the contrary, grieving is helpful to the healing process.” I’m just about ready to yell…”check please” but realize time is almost up and we have not heard from Rosemary.

“It’s your turn Rosemary” said Smiley. “What?” replied Rosemary. “It’s your turn” was repeated. “My hearing aids are new, and I’m having a lot of trouble hearing anything out of the one on the left. My family talks to me and they get really annoyed when I keep telling them I can’t hear what they are saying.” Irritating Jane jumps in by saying “this is a bereavement group Rosemary, who died?”. “What?” What did you say? I didn’t hear you!” yelled Rosemary

“Thank you Rosemary” said Karen, jumping in before Jane could say anything. “I will talk with you separately. I want to thank everyone for coming and I will see you all next week”.

I left the building thinking I would have loved to have the last ninety minutes of my life back again, and wondering generally if it might be better sometimes not to be able to hear certain conversations that are taking place? If you are thinking  I never went back to that group, you would be correct. My search for insightful sharing continues…

Century Village

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Nodding to Mario

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Unlike his predecessor, Governor Cuomo never had state police escort me off the Executive Mansion grounds, and for that I respected and liked him. WhyI was escorted off the premises is perfectly explainable but better suited for another time.

Mr. Cuomo was New York’s Governor from 1983-1994. During those years I worked for the Assembly’s Way and Means Committee as the Assistant Director for Local Government Fiscal Affairs.  On several occasions during those years we were often in the same room together having meetings on either legislation or fiscal issues. We never had a one-on-one conversation but he knew my face well enough to sometimes nod an acknowledgement. Good enough for my ego. When I heard the news that the Governor had died, I immediately remembered two anecdotal stories involving the Governor to share:

Book Wars

It was either 1984 or 85 at the annual Assembly Way and Means Committee Christmas Party in the capitol building (for those who might remember, it was not the year the Senate staffer fell down two flights of stairs, or the year Governor Hugh Carey showed up and drank the last of the white wine…and wanting more, invited everyone back to the Governor’s Mansion). It was the year of the book bidding war for charity. As fate would have it, local writer William Kennedy’s “Ironweed” was on the best selling list, as was New York City’s Mayor Ed Koch’s “Mayor”. The Governor also produced “Diaries of Mario M Cuomo”, which I was told was a very popular read among his staff, state workers, family and friends.

It was my idea to get autographed copies of each book and during the Christmas party, auction them off to the highest bidders and donate the proceeds to local charities. First up was calling Mr. Kennedy’s house with the proposal; not only did he he readily accept, he invited staff to come to his house to receive a copy first-hand.  Our Committee clerk Phyllis and I drove to to his modest, lovely home where the Kennedy’s were having breakfast. We were invited in and asked to join them at their breakfast table and had some juice, fresh fruit and interesting conversation for twenty minutes or so. We took the signed book and drove away very happy that this now famous author was so kind and poitive towards our effort. Next up was calling Mayor Koch’s office, explaining the situation and hoping we would get lucky twice. Within a few days we were told we would be receiving a book and that the winner could come to Gracie Mansion in NYC to meet the mayor who would sign it personally to the winner. Wow. Mayor Koch certainly showed a common-man touch about him. Seemed like this idea was taking off and we would be having an exciting auction. Lastly we called the Governor’s office and explained the situation and were told someone would get back to us. Eventually we got the call and were told that yes, we could get a signed copy but we would have to pay for the book! Really? I explained again that this was for charity but my case failed to persuade. The jacket-covered list price of $19.95 was delivered in an envelope to the Executive Chamber the following day after I borrowed twenty dollars from my pal Phyllis. Had I been able to see the Governor personally, I think we could have nodded back and forth until reaching a compromise, but alas there were no meetings scheduled prior to the party. The great news was the auction was a huge success and hundreds of dollars were distributed to local charities. Now as we all begin 2015, my new year’s resolution is to f-i-n-a-l-l-y read the Governor’s book I won that auction night so many years ago.

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Special Olympic Gold

Sometime in 1991/92, my best friends’ special-needs child  Katie won a Special Olympics gold medal in swimming, and one day her team visited the state capitol building and she had an individual picture taken with Governor Cuomo in his office. When I eventually saw it, I asked Katie’s parents if she would like to have the picture autographed. They both nodded indicating agreement , so I took the picture and made an appointment to see the Governor’s Budget Director, Pat Bulgaro and asked him if the Governor wouldn’t mind signing the picture for both the girl and for the guy he often nods at in various meetings. Within a few days I received a call from the Director telling me the picture was ready to be picked-up. Approximately twenty-two years later, the picture still hangs proudly in Katie’s room and I have always appreciated the graciousness and support of both the Governor and Mr. Bulgaro.

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Looking back it was an honor to be able to participate in the governmental process for nearly twenty-five years with Mario Cuomo and other progressive Governors and Assembly Speakers. Over those years, the state Senate was mostly under Republican control, as it is today, but unlike the gridlock so often found today, it was a time where people with different philosophies could come together in compromise to address the importent and complicated issues of the time and produce laws whose intent was to mostly improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers. That’s what Mario wanted…that’s what we all wanted.

So farewell  “Hamlet on the Hudson” and a nod to rest in peace.

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The Interview: 7:00-9:00-11:00

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So after all the hype, I can watch the movie right now on YouTube for $6 or go to a nearby drive-in and watch it after dark at the times shown above, in the comfort of my car eating a thawed-out egg roll  with a watery soft drink. Yes you read that correctly, a drive-in; the only working drive-in I know. Sort of fits in with the whole North Korean, in the dark ages kind of vibe. I do wonder if the whole commotion was a pre-planned publicity stunt from the beginning with Kim Jong Un promised a piece of the Kimchi pie for raising a stink.

I sided with the theaters for not showing this movie for fear of a terrorist attack of some kind. Imagine God forbid, if any disaster happens at a theater, the holy hell that will be raised by people decrying its showing if loved ones get hurt or killed? It will make the current street protests about crime profiling seem tame by comparison.

It is the new world we live in thanks to this country’s actions by politicians  that included ruining our economy and  invading a non-threatening country and destroying its governmental and religious structure, including torturing people, both guilty and innocent. And the only people that suffered as a result of these actions are the average citizens themselves. Now we have politicians and talking- heads dishing out this uber-fanatical patriotic nonsense about letting a two-bit psycho dictator tell us what to do falls on my deaf ears. If I was a country’s crazy leader and another country bestowed its blessing on a film that depicted my assassination, I would show my displeasure by some measure.

It’s only a movie…it’s only a movie. Let’s hope so. I wasn’t planning on seeing the movie anyway, so I really don’t care, except in this moment of “peace on earth, good will toward men”, I really really hope innocent movie-goers remain safe.

 

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That Was No Lady Gaga With The American Songbook

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I was so looking forward to watching a taped PBS American Masters TV show of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga singing classic songs from their much-hyped album “Cheek To Cheek”. And then it began…I realized again that some people do justice and some don’t, to the canon of forever popular music written from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, mostly for Broadway and movies. Lady Gaga is one of those singers in my opinion that should stick with what she does best, and not try to sing any song where her over-the-top persona takes over and people concentrate more on her than on the song itself. Plus her voice is all about the bass with little room for nuance and delicateness. I’m sorry, but you can’t sing a duet with iconic Tony Bennett of  “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t got That Swing) with spiked hair and a plunging neckline. Very much Cher-like, Lady Gaga changed outfits for every song. Some worked, some did not. Master Bennett and the music are class acts and not well suited to a woman who normally sings with a hundred people on stage, and animals and fireworks. That’s fine for what it is and I would love to see one of Lady Gaga’s shows, but whoever thought of this merging was off target by a mile. I’m sure the album will sell well, if only because Rod Stewart’s monstrously popular takes on the songbook went off the charts, and I’m sorry again, but he was terrible…TERRIBLE at interpreting the collection.

Barbra Streisand has the same problem as the Lady…her voice is too overwhelming for most of the familiar songs recorded by so many so earlier than Ms. Streisand, but I’m not surprised artists want to record this fabulous collection. Who wouldn’t? I have a great shower voice and I love to sing these songs all lathered up imangining looking in the audience and seeing my mother, my wife, and my entire high school class sitting center row front, crying with happiness over my ability to master the feelings of much of the 20th century’s music. But that doesn’t mean I could do it with Tony Bennett.

Celine Dion has one of the biggest voices ever, and can sing these songs because she will simply stand there and sing them with her interpretation, but it will be nothing but music to the ears. The same goes for Diana Krall, k.d.lang, Jane Monheit, Stacey Kent, and of course Madeleine Peyroux to name a few modern era songstresses.

So Tony, I’m begging you, in a few years when you do another album with a lady, pass on the gimmick and go for authentic. You’ll be happier than you probably are at the moment..

P.S. Tony Bennett, 88 years young can still bring it. His solo, How Do You Keep the Music Playing, brought tears to my eyes and produced a standing ovation from the audience.

 

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What I Need Right Now Is Baseball

Finally, after almost a week without baseball, the World Series begins tonight; I for one, look forward to watching every game. Both teams were fun to watch along the playoff trail because they both seemed to want it more than their opponets. The upstart, no name Royals who have waited for 29 years to be in this position, versus the returning, seasoned Giants. It should be a fun World Series.

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Pictured above is my wife last year at a Met/Marlins game in Miami wearing her supportive earrings for her son’s favored team. We tried to go to a few games every year, whether they were major league caliber or Triple-A, it didn’t matter. We loved to settle in to the rhythm of the game on a beautiful day and share with the people around us the action on the field. It is also the only situation where I could eat a hot dog or two without getting “you shouldn’t be doing that” looks from my bride. Over the long term, we both rallied around different teams, the Yankees for me, the Red Sox for her, but the games did not have to always feature one or the other’s favorite to be enjoyable. We just loved baseball, and would try to catch a game in any city we were visiting during a season.

I discovered recently an article published in 2013 called “The Beauty of Baseball” that comes very close to expressing the exact feelings I currently have about the game. Below is the pertinent excerpt and to me, it pretty much says it all for me at this moment in time.

“Some silly fools call baseball’s season too long, the day-to-day grind too much to keep up with. We’ll leave them to enjoy their once-a-week football contests, three hours of pent-up fury unleashed on the gridiron. Or their sporadic basketball and hockey schedules, about as comprehensible as string theory.

Me, I’ll take baseball, its metronome-like consistency a comforting, reliable presence, sometimes at the forefront of our attention, other times as an aside while we’re working on the car, fishing, or playing catch with our children.

And as nice as it is to have baseball during the mundane times of our existence, it can be even more important during the tough stretches. Of course, there’s the clichéd situation of a father and son having nothing but baseball to talk about during the latter’s coming of age, which is a cliché only because it’s so often true.

But it’s during the even more challenging times, such as the loss of a loved one when personal experience proves that our national pastime can be a familial balm, soothing our troubles ever so slightly during such a difficult period.

No, the game doesn’t make the pain go away, but it provides a distraction, a focus other than our difficulties when they prove too much to bear. The feeling may be fleeting, but watching a pitcher-batter confrontation or listening to a friendly, familiar voice describe a deep, arching home run can provide a brief escape, which may be just what we need to get by at that moment.

For many of us, life without baseball is nearly unimaginable, its existence so interwoven with our own, from our first game as a child to the moment we finally realized it was time to hang up our cleats for good, and during the times in between and beyond.

As in life, there is give and take, victory and loss, wonder and disappointment. In some small way, baseball is a reflection of our existence. However, there is comfort in knowing that whatever other changes we encounter, the game is sure to go on. And in that, we hope, we can find a glimmer of reassurance.”

First pitch is scheduled at 8:07 PM EST…I can’t wait and may the best team win.

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Grief Is The Price We Pay For Love

“I do not want to just lye around waiting to die. Please figure out a way to get me back to Lenox”. This was my bride’s expressed wish on an August day after hearing the news that the cancer was so far advanced, treatment could no longer keep pace, and hospice services were recommended. Her life expectancy was guesstimated by her oncologist at four weeks; she lived five.

In April, 2014 we both were told the breast cancer had returned and it was now in many different body locations, consequently Stage IV. At the time, with additional treatment, we were guardedly optimistic…we were both told and hoped for “a year to years”. Four months later however, we were informed that the cancer had spread into the brain and treatment was no longer a viable choice. Unfortunately all of the prescribed treatments were never able to keep pace with the continuously spreading cancer cells. Peg took the news with what I thought was amazing calmness. She determined that the estimated time left was enough for family and many friends to both see her and if needed, say their goodbyes. I was a wreck crying, and even her oncologist had tears in her eyes, but Peg spoke reassuringly and lovingly to both of us What gives me most comfort now is that Peg and I previously reflected-upon and agreed that we were so happy to have found one another and create a life together for 28 years, to have accomplished all of our goals and with the exception of not having more time together, to have no regrets. Pretty amazing I think.

Peg took her last breath during the early evening of September 25, 2014, surrounded by her son and daughter, her three sisters. and me. She passed comfortably in the home she had come to love after buying it just sixteen months previously. It was a Thursday, and less than forty-eight hours earlier, I really was expecting she would be fine to fly back home to Florida on the 30th and if things went really well, be able to return once again for a brief period. The critical health change occurred when she did not wake up from a nap on the previous Tuesday. I called a hospice nurse at 11:00 PM and she came right over. She told me “the transition” had begun and it would not be long. Immediate family arrived on Wednesday. Peg had only a few scattered moments of recognition; the rest of the time she lay motionless in slumber.

Peg lived her life with dignity, grace and assuredness. She knew she had accomplished her last wishes of traveling to her completed Berkshire home, hosting an open house on a Saturday evening filled with laughs and smiling hearts, sitting outside on her porch early in the morning sipping coffee and reveling in the autumn air, and having it all end surrounded by loving immediate family, secure in the knowledge that her children were all currently doing well, her grandchildren were funny, kind, gentle and secure, and her loving friends were steadfast in letting her know how much she meant to them.

Her wishes were for cremation and for her ashes to be spread outside both of her homes in Florida and Massachusetts. This has been done in Florida and will be done in Massachusetts next August prior to her Celebration of Life at the Tanglewood Music Center, her favorite place to be in the Berkshires for over twenty years.

Since late September, each week has been very difficult and dreamlike. Upon arriving back in Florida, I came down with bronchitis and spent nearly a week in bed. Now fully recovered, I constantly am reminded that after twenty-eight years as a couple, I find it extremely difficult to accept the new reality of oneness. A few months ago I heard on the radio someone quoting Queen Elizabeth II: “grief is the price we pay for love”. It stuck me then and now as being so poignantly true.

“Peg Updates” can now come to an end. I want to thank you all for letting us share our joys and sorrows via this blog and numerous emails over the last few years. All the responses since November 2011 have been supportive, comforting and helpful.  Often times in the past I described my life as “pre-Peg” and “post-Peg”. She changed my life in every way positive, and under her influence, I emotionally grew, matured, learned, and loved in so many ways I never dreamed deserving or possible. I will miss her until the end of my days, as I know each of you will also. Love…Alan

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FLORIDA‘S CELEBRATION OF PEG’S LIFE WILL BE HELD ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 1, 2014, FROM 3:00-6:PM IN LAKE WORTH FLORIDA, AT THE CMAA SPECIAL OLYMPICS THERAPEUTIC RECREATION CENTER, 2728 LAKE WORTH ROAD, 33461

MASSACHUSETTS CELEBRATION OF PEG’S LIFE WILL BE HELD AT THE TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER IN LENOX, IN LATE AUGUST 2015. PEG’S FAVORITE PIECE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC WAS THE 4TH MOVEMENT, “ODE TO JOY”, FROM BEETHOVEN’S 9TH SYMPHONY WHICH HAPPENS TO BE THE BOSTON SYMPHONY’S TRADITIONAL LAST SUMMER PERFORMANCE EVERY YEAR AT TANGLEWOOD. THE DATE WILL BE ANNOUNCED AS SOON AS THEIR 2015 SCHEDULE IS PRINTED.

PLEASE JOIN FAMILY AND FRIENDS AT ONE OR BOTH CELEBRATIONS IF YOU POSSIBLY CAN SO THAT WE TOGETHER CAN CELEBRATE WHO PEG WAS AND HOW SHE LIVED; FOR THE DREAMS SHE FOLLOWED AND THE GIFTS SHE SHARED; AND FOR THE RELATIONSHIPS SHE NURTURED AND THE PEOPLE SHE LOVED.

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And These Few Precious Days I’ll Spend With You

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“But the days grow short when you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few

September, November

And these few precious days I’ll spend with you

These precious days I will spend with you”

September Song

Knowing that time is short for Peg and I changes the way we think and act and look at the world. Cliched I know, but every day really is a gift that has to be savored every minute. Simply sitting outside on a beautiful fall morning having coffee, talking, and watching people walk and drive by is a treat for the senses and the heart.

Ever since all treatments were stopped, and Peg was released from the hospital over a month ago, she has been stable and in excellent spirit. Her appetite is good, her pain is managed, her mental capacities only slightly diminished by occasional confusion. We arrived in Lenox on the 8th and Peg has been nothing but happy to be here. She loves her many friends who live within driving distance, the Berkshires in general and Lenox specifically and we have had lots of time to laugh and yes, cry together.

Our home here is beautiful thanks to so many people who has helped in a dozen different ways over these past months and Peg was thrilled to finally see everything in person. We hosted an open house last Saturday night for nearly thirty of these special friends and we had the best time possible. One gentleman, slightly younger, slightly taller, slightly more muscular, and slightly more stronger than me, actually carried Peg up two flights of stairs to the second level so she could see all the handiwork and staging in the three bedrooms and two baths on the second floor. Peg was “giddy with happiness” after the tour to see the fruits of her many hours of planning grow from concept to reality.  The support, kindnesses, and love expressed by everyone that evening will stay with Peg and I forever.

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We have shared the good company of longtime friends and amazingly have made some very new ones. Between now and the 30th we will try to see as many people as possible given Peg’s limited mobility and energy. Some days are much better than others.  This is what she wants and this is what brings her smiles and memories.

Our current plan if all goes well, is to return to Florida on the 30th for a few weeks to especially see and enjoy our granddaughters while Hydrangea Hill is enjoyed by other family members for a couple of weeks. If Peg is strong enough, we will return here sometime after the 15th until a date unknown as of now. She has already survived longer than medically estimated so we view each morning as a new opportunity to share, enjoy and plan. We want and look forward to many more happy days together…these precious days.

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