Sunday, May 26, 2013

My Trees

One of my "meeting" trees.
Notice the hole punched
in the top of the paper.
It seems I have a thing for trees. Dead trees, especially.  They fascinate me.  I love to photograph them, and I have been sketching them for years, while sitting in meetings at school.  I listen better when I'm drawing.  Seriously.  I have students who do, too.  As a result of the circumstances under which they were created, most of my trees were drawn in blue or black ball point pen.  Many on notebook paper, still others on white, hole-punched copy paper.  Actually sitting down to create a tree on drawing paper using a proper instrument intended for the production of "art" never occurred to me.  Drawing trees with pen was just something I did to keep my hands busy.

And then one day, My Sweetheart asked, "Why don't you ever use colors in your trees?"  Frankly, I had never thought about it.  I thought the trees were fine the way they were, and I was just playing around with them anyway.
"No one creates actual art with ball point pens, sillly!" I insisted.
"Oh, really," smirked He, ever so smugly.  "Google 'Ball Point Pen Art'.  Go ahead.  I'll wait."
So I did.  And in that moment, my whole world changed.  Sometimes I hate it when he is right.  This was not one of those times.
The next day I bought a pack of cheap Bic Crystal Stic pens and started to play with color in an actual sketch pad.

My First Tree in Color

Then Dad went into the hospital.  And all of a sudden I had way too much time just sitting still on my hands.  I had to sketch to keep me from completely freaking out over the fact that we were in a hospital with dad, facing The Big C, facing surgery, facing whotheHellknowswhat, facing hours on end of waiting, and powerlessness, and no control over anything.  

I suck at waiting, and powerlessness, and lack of control.  I suck at it in the grandest of style.  
So I drew.

I started this while Dad was in surgery.
"The Waiting Tree"

Before releasing Dad, the doctors confirmed that it was Cancer.  And this tree was born.  It was utter chaos at its inception, I assure you.

This was originally called Tree of Panic,
but it actually soothed me very well.

The surgery was a success.  They got it all.  No chemo.  No radiation.  Just monitoring.  They got it all!!!  Dad is going to be okay!  

Tree of Life
I posted pictures of my trees regularly while Dad was in the hospital.  People were so encouraging that I decided to experiment with different kinds and sizes of paper, but I'm committed to the pens.  Many have made observations about the look of the trees giving keys to my state of mind when they were created.  They may be on to something.

Tree of Possibilities

Then I started to find my rhythm.  It takes about three nights to finish a tree right now.  I feel so at peace during the time I spend bringing them to life.  This is better than any therapy, and healthier than any addiction.

Tree of Life Two

Tree of Love

 It blows my mind that anyone would want to have one of my trees, but people have asked.  I will do everything I can to make it possible.  I'm working on it as fast as I can.  When they are ready, I promise to let everyone know.

Branching Out

Tree of Inspiration

 Today My Sweetheart and I celebrate Seven years together.  He honored the day by making it an art anniversary.  He gave me a light under which I can actually see the colors in my trees. We live in a very dark house.  I had no idea all those colors were in my trees!  Now I can actually take better pictures of them, too!  I am also the recipient of a new drawing board and portfolio.
Once again I must count myself the luckiest girl I know for so many reasons.  I have an incredibly talented mother who taught me how to draw to keep me from losing my mind. I have a father who is healthy.  I have an amazing family and incredible friends who support and encourage me in all that I do.  And I have My Sweetheart who sometimes knows me better than I know myself.
My life is good.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

On The 13th Anniversary of My Hero's Passing

I've been thinking about how to write this post for the last month.  This is the thirteenth anniversary of the evening my grandfather, Pop Pop, The Bossman, died.  I just went through every euphemism I could think of to avoid using the word died, but they all just sound so soft and silly.  We lost him.  He left us.  He passed... They all mean the same thing.  He was gone.  You'd think that after thirteen years I could talk about it without a lump in my throat, without my eyes welling up, without needing to leave the dinner table.  You'd be wrong.  Pop Pop hung the moon in my world.  I wanted to go with him when he left, but I knew that wasn't what he wanted.  He wanted me to be strong, to take care of everybody else.  I promised him I would.  I promised.  And I try.  I really try...

Many of you know we faced a pretty big health scare with Dad last month.  We spent almost two weeks with him in the hospital.  All of the hospital memories of our Spring Week in the hospital with Pop Pop came flooding back to me.  I kept them at bay just fine, as long as I was busy.  I did a lot of drawing.  When I was alone and it was quiet, that was another story entirely.  Fortunately, we had the most wonderful doctors and have now been given the amazing news that Dad is going to be fine.  I keep telling myself that it is okay to exhale now.  He really is fine.  He really is.  I am the luckiest girl in the world to have the family that I do, and I know it.
Pop Pop set down the roots that
gave our family such strength.

All of this is leading to something.  I have wanted to write about my grandfather on the blog for a long time, but never found the words. Finally I decided to take a cue from my dear friend Dani at Suburbia Interrupted and just post it as it was written for a grad school class so many years ago. Flaws and all, here it is.

     As he let out his final breath, Dad and I looked out the window, and it began to rain...

     I got the call just one week before.  It was a Friday afternoon.  I was on a bus with all of my fourth graders.  We were on our way home from an end-of-the-year field trip to Sea World.  We got caught in the rain on our way back to the bus.  My cell phone rang.  It was my father.  Pop Pop was in the hospital.  He was dehydrated and had pneumonia.  I was cold, and wet, and exhausted, and terrified.
    "Is he...?"  I cautiously began.
    "No.  He's still here.  They're keeping him in the hospital.  He's resting now.  It doesn't look good.  Grandma and I are waiting for the doctor to come."
    "I'll be there as soon as the kids all get picked up."

     I hung up my cell phone and tried to hold myself together in front of the kids.  I don't know why I bothered.  The kids knew he was sick.  The kids jnew all about him.  I talked about him incessantly whenever an opportunity presented itself to discuss morals, ethics, or values.  He was a perfect example.  The kids got so into my stories about him that on his ninety-second birthday they made an audiotape for him of themselves reciting poetry.  They knew he loved poetry, and by that time he was legally blind so a tape was perfect.  We made a tape of him reciting "Little Boy Blue" by Eugene Field to play back for them as his offer of thanks.  I told the kids about his worsening condition because I knew that if anything happened to him, I would be a wreck and would certainly be out of school for at least a few days.  I wanted them to be prepared to have a sub, and to be prepared to deal with me and not be scared to talk about it when I came back.  I wanted them to know that it was okay to talk about death, and sickness, and grief.  I also knew how much they loved me and how much I would need their love when the time finally came.  How I prayed it never would!

     He had been sick for twelve years, but over the last few weeks he had gotten so much worse.  He world not, or could not, eat.  He could not get out of bed.  My grandmother call a home health aide to help her take care of him.  Apparently when the nurse came on Friday morning, she decided that it was imperative for him to go to the hospital, no matter how stubbornly he objected. They called an ambulance and he was whisked away to Tampa General.  My dad waited to call my until he thought I would be back in Tampa.  He knoew I would want to be there immediately and, since we had taken a bus, I had no way to get back from Sea World until the end of the day.  Rather than have me spend the day worrying, he waited to call until late in the afternoon.

     Thankfully the kids all got picked up fast and I headed straight to the hospital.  I do not remember the drive except that my shorts and shirt were still cold and damp from the rain.  I had spiky goose bumps on both my arms and legs.  I was thankful for my sweatshirt, but afraid that if I got to the hospital too late, I would never get warm again.

     As I went looking for Pop Pop's room in the maze of the hospital, I found nothing but panic and frustration.  Apparently Tampa General has different wings on each floor which all have the same numbered rooms...I went to three of those wings before, heart pounding, hands trembling, breath coming only in short gasps, grapefruit-sized lump in my throat, I finally found Pop Pop's room.

     Dad and Grandma were both still there.  They looked exhausted.  Pop was asleep.  A tube in his nose delivering oxygen; IV bags hanging next to the bed running into his arm delivering hydration and nourishment; pulse oxygen meter clipped to his finger.  He was shrunken, white, and fragile.  I had a flashback to the first, and last, time I had seen him in a hospital bed twelve year earlier...this time he looked so much older, so much more helpless, so much worse.  I pulled a chair up next to his bed, took his hand, kissed him and began stroking his rather expansive forehead.

     I don't remember the order of events of the rest of that night.  My dad left at some point.  A handsome, young doctor came in and tried to talk us into putting a feeding tube into Pop.  Apparently Pop had some problem with his esophagus.  Every time he ate, food went down the wrong way and got stuck in his lungs, hence the eventual pneumonia.  He would never be able to eat again.  The tube involved surgery.  Initially, I was in favor of it.  Was I just tired?  Was the doctor just too good looking for me to think rationally?  Was it his great eye contact and gently, reassuring voice?  I don't know.  My grandfather had made it very clear to all off us that he wanted no extensive or "heroic" measures taken to prolong his life, should he not be able to sustain it himself.  Dad, Grandma, and I eventually made the decision together to decline the tube.  At some point Grandma left.  I could not.  I would not.  This man was my life.  He was my hero.  I truly believed we shared parts of the same soul.  I worshipped and adored him.  I wanted to be just like him.  I would not leave him.  I was determined to be with him at whichever moment he left us.  I always told him that he had to wait until I was with him to die.  I don't know why, I just knew I had to be there, and he knew I was serious.  He would wait.

     I spent that  first night holding his hand, stroking his forehead, placing my palms on his chest willing the disease to come out of his lungs and into my strong hands.  I cried.  I prayed.  I talked to him.  I talked to God.  I begged God not to let him suffer.  I begged for the strength to let him go and to still go on myself.  I was not sure I could do it.  Someone brought me a blanket.  In the wee hours of the morning I remember a respiratory therapist coming in and telling me to go home.  I had been up since Five AM.  I had been through three hours on a bus and a day at Sea World with a gang of thirty-some-odd fourth graders.  I was exhausted.  He told me that I was of no use to Pop Pop if I did not have any strength left myself.  I think he called in a nurse to tell me that Pop was not going to die before the next morning.  Together they convinced me and sent me home.

     The next few days are a blur.  The hospital, doctors, nurses, therapists...they all blend together now.  I know I went back to work on Monday, then straight to the hospital.  That became my routine.  I know that Pop woke up often when I was there.  I know that I was pretty much the only one who could consistently understand the words he struggled to get out.  I know that we all told him that we loved him over and over again, and he did us as well.

     I know that on Wednesday I was with him when they moved him to another room.  It was a nightmare!  Both my dad and my grandmother had gone home for a little while.  They had been assured that Pop would not be moved that day, so it seemed like no big deal...How wrong we were!  I had spend my visit Tuesday explaining to him that he was in the hospital, how he got there, and why he was there.  Dad and I had discussed the feeding tube with him.  He wanted no part of it!  Tuesday he had been fairly coherent.  This was Wednesday, and it was getting worse by the minute.  In order to move him to the other wing, the nurses  disconnected his entire bed from the wall; they took the IV out of his arm, and began rolling the cumbersome bed down the hall.  He was so confused.
     On the new wing the nurses asked me loads of questions to which I had no answers.
    "I don't know his complete medical history, for Pete's sake!" I thought loudly  to myself, "Just go away and leave him the Hell alone!"
     They insisted on trying to weigh him.  The other wing had his estimated weight.  were these people serious?
    "Can't you just ask the nurses on the other wing?  Please?"
    "I am sorry, Ma'am.  We have auditors from the state here.  We have to do it by the book."
     Have you any idea what it takes to weigh a ninety-two-year-old immobile, half-conscious man in excruciating pain?  They drag in a huge sling-like apparatus on wheels, hoist him into it, leave him dangling there, and voila!  It reminded me of the pictures you see of the stork with a baby in a blanket in its beak.  It broke my heart.  I saw and heard how much pain he was in and thought I would be sick or pass out.  I wasn't sure which would come first.  In fact, neither ever did.
     When the finally left us alone, I tried to calm him down.  I tried to reassure him that he was safe and that they were going to stop hurting him.  He was disoriented.  He did not know where he was or why he was there.  I went through the story again and again.  I will never forget the conversation we had that evening, though some days I wish I could.
    "I love you, Pop.  You know that, don't you?"
    "How would I know that?"  He growled.
     My voice caught in my throat.  "How can you even ask me that?  You are everything to me.  You know I love you more than my own life.  Pop?"
    "If you love me, then why are you doing this to me?"  His accusation ripped me in half.
    "I didn't do this to you, Pop.  We are trying to help you feel better."
    "Why don't you just let me die?"
    "We're trying."  The words were in my head, but I could not get them out of my breath.
     I kept stroking his head, telling him that I loved him in the most soothing voice I could muster.  Eventually I fell into a fitful sleep and I fell apart.  I called my best friend, Ashley.  She told me that he didn't mean anything he had said. He was frustrated, hurting, and I was there, in the line of fire.  I knew she was right, but it still hurt.  This dear, sweet man had never hurt me before in my entire twenty-nine years of life.  He was a gentle man and a gentleman.  He always went out of his way to protect my feelings.  This unprecedented verbal assault caused a pain I had never felt before and never want to feel again.  I left the hospital shortly after my grandmother returned.

     Thursday Dad and I decided that we would bring angels into his hospital room.  Sara MacLachlan's song "Angel" was constantly on the radio those days.  "You're in the arms of your angel, may you find some comfort here."  I cried every time I heard it.  We knew Pop's time was drawing near and, I guess we wanted to make sure he was not alone.  Dad brought a stuffed angel that Grandma made for my sister when she was born.  We placed her at the foot of his bed.  I brought and angel that was holding a wand with a star on the end.  She hung above his bed like a Christmas tree ornament holding her wand over his head.  Grandma brought an angel made of cornhusks that they got on one of their many vacations.  She hung from his IV pole.  As Dad and I placed our angels around the room he whispered, "I was hoping they would draw a crowd." I prayed that it would work.  I did not want Pop to suffer any longer.  As I sat with him Thursday night stroking his head, holding his hand, I told him that it would be all right.  I promised him, like he always asked me to, that I would take care of everyone for him.  I told him that I knew he was tired and that it was okay for him to go.  I wasn't sure I could get the words out, but I believed that he needed to hear them.

     Friday morning as I got ready for school, my (now ex-) husband called to me from the living room, "Did you put this picture on the floor?"
    "What picture?"  I asked, walking into the living room.
    "The one of Pop and Grandma."
    "No.  Did you?"
     The sterling silver framed photo of my grandparents had been sitting in the same place on the mantle, five feet off the ground above the brick floor for years.  It was now sitting upright on the brick floor, facing the front door.  There was neither a scratch on it nor a crack in the glass.  I had always told him to come and see me "on his way out."  I knew at that moment that he had. I did not say anything about my thoughts to my husband.  I was sure he would think I was an idiot and a flake.  I went to school  I went straight to the office and called the hospital, holding my breath the entire time.
    "Sixth Floor West, this is Bob.  Can I help you?"
    "Bob, this is Amy Ragg, Mr. Ragg's granddaughter.  Is he okay?"
    "He is.  The last nurse said he slept fine through the night."
    "Bob, this is going to sound crazy, but would you check on him now for me, please?"
    "Sure.  Why?  Did you have a premonition?"
    "I don't know what to call it.  Please check."
    "Okay.  No problem.  Hang on."
     Again, I held my breath.
    "Amy?  He is sleeping peacefully.  Are you okay?"
    "Yes.  Thanks, Bob, I appreciate it."
    "You know, I had a premonition about my grandmother this morning.  I guess I better call her after work."
    "Call her, Bob.  Thank you.  See you this afternoon."
     I hung up, breathing a sigh of relief, but somehow I knew that I had not been wrong.

     It was a beautiful, sunny May afternoon.  Dad waited for me to go to the hospital with him.  We listened to "Angel" in the car on the way.  He told me I was lucky that he didn't drive off the road.
     Pop was sleeping when we got there.  Grandma said that he had been awake and coherent all day.  He had been thanking all of the doctors and nurses, and telling everyone that he loved them.  She said, "We had the best day!"  It was so nice to see her smile.  She also told us that the doctor said that he would go sometime that weekend, they didn't know when, but it would be soon.  We were not surprised.  We sent her home to take a break for a little while.  She was worn out flat.
     I pulled a chair up beside Pop's bed, disengaged the bedrail, took his right hand in my right hand and stroked his head with my left.  Dad sat on the other side of him with his back to the window.  Pop stopped breathing.  I stopped breathing.  I said, "Dad, go get someone."  Dad stood up.  Pop took another breath.  So did I.  Dad came around to my right side and put his hand on my  shoulder.  I took my father's big, strong, beautiful hand in my own.  We were there together, all three of us, one.  Connected.  Pop stopped breathing again.  We held our breath.  He took another breath.  We breathed a collective sigh.  We watched and waited.  He took another breath: his last.  As he let out his final breath, Dad and I looked out the window, and it began to rain.

     I thought because the moment he left us was so beautiful, so miraculous, so perfect, it would not hurt.  I thought because I believed he was going on to a better place, it would not hurt.  I thought because I knew he would not suffer anymore, it would not hurt.  I was wrong.  It hurt like Hell.  It still hurts.  I have avoided writing about this for three years because it hurts so much.  I wasn't sure I had the strength to remember and to put it all into writing.  But I did.  I am proud that I have his strength.  I think Pop would be proud, too.

~Amy C. Ragg
Spring 2002

Top: Pop & Baby Sis at The Little House
Bottom: Pop & me on the little tractor