Archive for November, 2010

That is the title of a sentimental old bluegrass song about a mother who visits her son in prison.

It also is the thing I am most grateful for this Thanksgiving day. The moment the ventilation tube was removed and the mucus and mess that came with it was suctioned away, and she was back on a nasal cannula, Mom smiled. It was the first time in fifteen days we had seen her smile without the tubes in front of it.

I don’t mind admitting, I about broke down.

As of a few minutes ago, things look good. She may be out in a room as early as tomorrow, or by Saturday anyway.

There will be continued respiratory treatment, and physical therapy in coming days, as her recovery progresses, and there may be days when tears are more frequent than smiles.

But today’s smile is, as Sylvia Plath once said in quite another context, found money.

In fact, it’s a damned sight more precious than all the gold in the world.

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This is an archival piece, originally posted at my former blog on this date in 2008. It began with a tidbit I ran across about the sinking of the Nantucket whaler Essex, in the Pacific Ocean, on November 20th, 1820. This story has some importance in American literature; an account by one of the survivors from the ill-fated ship partly inspired Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (1851), arguably the greatest novel ever written by an American.

Essex set out from her home port of Nantucket in August of 1819, planning to be away for two years or more, only returning home with a full cargo hold of precious oil from the sperm whale, which was used at the time for, among other things, lighting fuel and as a base for perfume. On November 20, 1820, while hunting some two thousand nautical miles off the western coast of South America, Essex was rammed twice and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale, which stove in her entire front end in two separate attacks, pushing the two hundred thirty eight ton vessel backwards and eventually capsizing her.

Inspired by an account written in 1821 by Essex’s first mate, Owen Chase, Melville would have his fictional Pequod stove and sunk by the great white whale, Moby Dick, as the climax of Captain Ahab’s mad pursuit of the creature who left him a cripple, with only the novel’s narrator, Ishmael, surviving the attack.

In real life, there were eight survivors of the Essex disaster. There’s always more to the story, and theirs is horrific.

The crew of Essex was able to salvage some supplies from the ship before she sank: sixty-five gallons of water, two hundred pounds of bread, a gun, and some navigational equipment, and kept together in three of the smaller boats used to pursue and kill whales. They made landfall, eventually, on the remote Henderson Island, not far from Pitcairn Island of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. While there, they were able to shoot turtles and eat their meat, but they exhausted the island’s entire food resources within four days.

Three of the whalers opted to stay on Henderson Island rather than take to the open sea seeking civilization. These three were rescued, alive but starving, by an Australian ship the following April.

Of the three boats that put back out to sea, one was lost in a great storm at the end of January, 1821. The others, commanded respectively by Captain George Pollard Jr. and first mate Owen Chase, were picked up in February, Chase’s boat by the British ship Indian and Pollard’s by another Nantucket boat called Dauphin.

Only then did the five survivors reveal that they had stayed alive by cannibalizing several of the bodies of crew members who succumbed to starvation and dehydration. In one case, Pollard’s young cousin, Owen Coffin, volunteered to let himself be killed so the others might live.

All the survivors of the ordeal on the boats—Captain Pollard, Chase, cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, and able seamen Charles Ramsdale (who killed Owen Coffin after drawing lots) and B. Lawrence—were home by June of 1821. Their reception was chilly to say the least. Pollard, once he had regained his strength, went to tell the story of Owen Coffin’s sacrifice to Coffin’s mother; she threw Pollard, her nephew, out of the house and never spoke to him again.

Remarkably, all five returned to sea again. Pollard, Chase and Nickerson all shipped aboard a whaler called Two Brothers that sank in a storm in 1823; the survivors of that loss were rescued the following day. Pollard, apparently feeling that, having lost two ships in three years, he had become a Jonah, returned to Nantucket and took a job as a night watchman. Until his death in 1882, he spent every November 20th in fasting and prayer for the men of Essex who did not survive.

Owen Chase became a wealthy man from his endeavors, but in his later years his sanity failed; he took to hiding quantities of food in his Nantucket home, haunted to his grave by the privations he had suffered after the loss of Essex.

Thomas Nickerson, only fourteen at the time of the disaster, would also leave a written account of the loss. Penned in the 1870s, it was lost for more than a century, and only found and published in 1984.

Melville’s story is an all-but-gothic classic, with its mad captain and the sinister force of nature that is the White Whale. But the story of the men of Essex is, for my money, more chilling by far.

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Happy Bday to Two Guys Named Joe

One of ’em, I’m told, is none other than VP Biden.

The other’n ain’t. 😉 He’s my second favorite Eagle.

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Two Gettysburg Addresses

. . .they think they shall be heard for their much speaking. Matthew 6:7 (KJV)

The guns at Gettysburg fell silent on July 3, 1863, and the two great armies, Union and Confederate, both badly crippled by the three-day-long battle, began to move out on Independence Day, leaving the citizens of the tiny Pennsylvania town to tend those too desperately wounded to be moved and to bury the dead—more than seventy-five hundred of those last. Land was purchased for a cemetery, the dead were buried, and Gettysburg planned a solemn dedication ceremony.

Edward Everett, a noted speaker of the day, was invited to give the keynote address. Everett was a Massachusetts lawyer and politician, who had, in 1852, been appointed to fill out the unexpired term of Daniel Webster as secretary of state in the Fillmore administration, then served, briefly, as a Massachusetts senator. He was a speaker very much in the mode of his idol, Webster—who is still remembered as one of the greatest of all American orators. Invited to speak at the Gettysburg dedication, which was originally scheduled for October 23, Everett replied that he needed more time to prepare an appropriate address for so important an occasion, and the event was rescheduled for November 19.

Almost as an afterthought, President Abraham Lincoln was invited, on November 2, to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” to conclude the ceremony.

Thus it was that Everett had forty days to prepare a speech, and prepare one he did. In later printed versions, it runs to 13,607 words. He opened with the words:

Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;–grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.

Two hours later, he ended with an equally orotund paragraph:

But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battle of Gettysburg.

That last, presumably, was addressed to the Confederacy.

Lincoln had, on the train journey from Washington DC to Pennsylvania, been tinkering with his “few appropriate remarks.” The version we have now does not agree with notes made by listeners at the time; it comes from a copy made for Col. Alexander Bliss, a friend, in Lincoln’s own hand. Significantly, it is the only one Lincoln signed, almost as if he were “signing off” on the only version of his speech that completely met with his approval.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . .we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In the mid-nineteenth century, tastes ran to a preference for prolix speeches like Everett’s, which was universally praised—and we must remember that, for all that we revere him nowadays as the greatest of our presidents, Lincoln was not so revered in his own time. The most hostile reviews came from the Democratic side of the aisle—the side that favored letting the Confederacy go its own way; one paper of that party’s views called Lincoln’s speech “silly, flat, and dishwatery”. Republican sympathizers referred to it as “a perfect gem.” And in the reminiscences of some friends, Lincoln himself was said to have remarked “that speech won’t scour.”

The man who spoke for two hours before Lincoln, however, gave him the best enconmium of any that followed the ceremony. In a letter he wrote to Lincoln on the following day, Everett said: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Lincoln drily replied that he was glad to know the speech was not a total failure.

Within a year and a half, both Lincoln and Everett would be dead. Six weeks after Lincoln died at the hands of an assassin, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts rose to deliver a eulogy for the fallen president. In that eulogy, Sumner called the Gettysburg Address “a monumental act” and disagreed that it would “be little noted, nor long remembered”. The world, he said, “will never cease to remember it.”

Everett’s Gettysburg Address was reprinted in book form to raise money for soldiers’ relief. It was all but forgotten by the time of his death, and is seldom read and rarely even mentioned to this day.

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Shower Scene

Hospitals–especially on floors where there’s no activity, for whatever reason–can be spooky places at night. Imaginations can run wild.

Take for example my trip, night before last, to the shower.

Mom’s on the fifth floor. The shower–a single, with barely room for my–ahem–not inconsiderable feminine pulchritude, shielded from the outside world only by a drab, unhappy curtain and a fortunately deadbolted door–is on the fourth.

The lovely lady who watches over the fifth floor waiting room, where I’ve slept five of the last six nights, guided me down to that little room. Alas, I was suffering from little sleep, I didn’t have my glasses on, and we had to return to the fifth floor to fetch soap and shampoo.

Alone, I bravely returned to the fourth. And was immediately lost in a maze of hallways. And bizarre imaginings.

What if I were to run up on–gulp–Freddy Krueger????

Well, without my glasses, I wouldn’t really be able to see him–a nicety which would not stop him from slitting my throat with a smart remark. Freddy always was kind of a smartass. 😉

Then I looked at my reflection in one of the darkened windows.

I could swear I see a hockey mask over my shoulder.

And I’m lost, mind, in this maze of hallways.

I comfort myself with the thought that I might be able to outrun a slasher, because–frabjous day! Calloo, callay, she chortled in her joy–I’m wearing sneakers!!! I may move rather more slowly than an oldtime Sherman tank, but I’m not hampered by high heels.

And I’m still lost, sneakers or not.

At last I meet someone I think, perhaps, I can trust–a male–Huh. I think, by his navy scrubs, he must be one of the respiratory therapists. Nice man, doesn’t seem threatening or strange at all, and he leads me around until we part, with mutual good cheer, at the door to the shower room.

And, secure behind the deadbolted door, I suddenly wonder:

what would he look like in his mama’s clothes?

There was not enough hot water to entice me to stay in the shower any longer than strictly necessary to clean off–good God, how many days? The first thing to go during a longterm hospital stay is one’s sense of time.

At least, when, clean (but hair still unwashed–I really don’t like to shampoo in chilly water) and clothed, I venture back out from behind that deadbolted door, I’m able to get back to the elevators and ride in solo comfort and ease back up to the waiting room.

And I conclude the slashers must be as danged lost as I was. 😉 😀

PS Will update Mom’s condition later in the day at FB. Holding her own, but we’re still not out of the woods. Love & hugs to all & thanks for your prayers and good thoughts–

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The first thirty-six hours were the hardest. Seeing Mom in the ER, entubated, a ventilator breathing for her, and having no idea how it happened, let alone so fast, sent sleep on a far journey from me.

And since then, it’s been a roller coaster.

We know this much: she does have pneumonia, which is being treated with intravenous antibiotics.

We know her potassium, magnesium, and electrolyte levels are completely out of whack, but improving.

We know that, valiantly though she tried, she couldn’t sustain breathing on her own for more than a couple of hours yesterday; in her weakened state, she simply gave out, and was entubated again.

Today, she’s sleeping. Yesterday’s CAT scan and MRI ruled out stroke activity. She’s weak, but holding her own. The doctors have decided to put off another attempt to wean her off the ventilator until tomorrow or Tuesday. A heart cath, to check for blockages, was tentatively scheduled for tomorrow morning, but may be postponed a bit.

That much we know.

We know that her doctors and nurses have been unfailingly kind, competent, thorough, and loving people. They care for her as tenderly as if she were their mother, not just mine, my brother’s and sister’s. That means a lot.

We know that her illness has drawn our family closer than we’ve been able to be in many years. There are hugs and kisses being exchanged and I love yous being said that have sudden, poignant significance. That means a lot.

We know that we have friends, not only at home but all over the country, praying for us and following every up and down and weeping every tear and laughing every laugh with us. That means a lot.

What surprises us is that, at times, she can write. She can’t talk because of the tube in her throat, although she can mouth words and part of the time we can understand them, but we understand her writing, feeble and changeable though it is, much better.

And once, she wrote two words that took us all aback:

I died.

As far as we know, only one doctor, in the ER, ever used the word died in her hearing, and at that qualified it with an almost.

After she wrote I died, she wrote another word. Only one, but significant.


Mom was never close to her mother, who was abusive, manipulative, and unkind.

We have a feeling, in fact, that Mom came back because the first person she met on the other side was Mamaw.

Not that it matters.

On this rainy Sunday, our hearts are lighter, because Mom is alive, she’s slowly but steadily improving, and we have love, prayers and friends as far as our hearts can reach.

And that means a lot.

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Hi all–at the moment I’m spending an awful lot of time in waiting rooms. My mom was flown to UT Hospital via Lifestar yesterday (Wednesday 11/10). She is being treated for pneumonia and having tests to see whether she may have some heart blockage.

So it’ll be some time before I can update the blog. Although I have the full support and loving presence of my family and friends around me, I’m worn to a shadow and scared shitless. Any and all prayers are greatly appreciated.

Love & hugs–

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