Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Grandpa, Carl G. Becker 1925-2011

Writing and delivering the eulogies for my grandparents has been a cathartic yet ultimately gratifying experience. These were two interesting people who touched many lives, and that made the job easier. Unlike my Grandma's eulogy, which came to me in one 15-minute burst, I struggled with my Grandpa's eulogy. Much of it came together at 1 AM today, and I rewrote the first paragraph about two hours before the funeral.

As for speaking, this time was much easier. For starters I had a podium to stand behind, which made me much less self-conscious than I felt standing out in the open with a paper in my hand at Grandma's funeral. The weird part came when I went back to my pew and sat down. I thought of various lines from the eulogy and couldn't remember actually saying any of them! Later my wife, who read the eulogy before I gave it (as did my mom), reassured me that I hadn't skipped anything. It's like my mind went off to a different place to deliver the eulogy. Otherwise I probably wouldn't have made it through. I'm really thankful that I didn't have to give the eulogy after the U.S. Navy flag ceremony, though. There wasn't a dry eye in attendance after that.

When I stood before most of you just four months ago, I didn't expect to be up here again so soon. We expected Grandpa to be around longer, but today we need to celebrate the full 85-year life he had and the great man he was. We're lucky he was a part of our lives for so long.

My grandfather had an incredible zest for life and a buoyant personality. Even as his body aged, he still loved to get up in the morning to take on the new day. He was rarely angry or negative. He had a great sense of humor and laughed a lot. He was an all-around nice guy.

Grandpa was a loving husband, and he and Grandma had 62 happy years together. He adored their daughters and treated not just their spouses, but also their spouses' entire families, as part of his own.

My grandfather was very successful as an agent for State Farm Insurance, and he loved to share his prosperity with family and friends. He provided his mother, his sister, and her husband with a place to live, and he was happy to be able to do so. By the way, if you know anyone who might want to buy a condo in Buffalo Grove, please let us know!

My grandparents were a perfect team of generosity – he earned the money and she loved shopping! Christmas was always a big event with towering stacks of presents and holiday decorations everywhere. When my wife was new to the family, she described it as “Christmas in Disneyland.”

Grandpa was a huge sports fan. He loved the Cubs and Bears the most, but he'd root for almost any Chicago team except the White Sox. For many years, he bought a weekend ticket package at Wrigley Field that the whole family got to enjoy. And of course, whenever Grandpa went along, there were plenty of hotdogs and frosty malts to go around. For a while, Grandpa took the extended Becker family wherever the Cubs went – the Cubs Convention downtown, spring training in Arizona, Cubs Care benefits at Wrigley Field, and even Walt Disney World in Florida. He loved to have everyone all together, from his mom to his grandsons.

Grandpa loved to eat. He could appreciate a fine meal, but he was just as happy ordering a pizza – sometimes all in one night! And if you went out to dinner with my Grandpa, there's no chance you'd be paying your own way. He may have enjoyed buying dinner for others almost as much as he enjoyed eating the food himself. I like to think that he would look at today as an opportunity to treat all of his family and friends to one final, great meal. We'll be gathering later at Toscana, one of his favorites.

Sad Story

I've been sad enough lately on my own, but this story is so heartbreaking:
Taylor Stinchcomb had just learned on the morning of June 21 that her Doberman Romulus would be put to sleep. Upset, she loaded the dog into her parents' minivan and left home without permission, police say. She picked up a friend, who later was behind the wheel when the van crashed on a rural Lake County road near Wildwood. Stinchcomb and the dog died. The teen who was driving suffered minor injuries.
For more details, see the original story that appeared after the accident.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dave's Fashion Guide, Part 1

My definition of being coordinated: I look just as shitty as I feel.

Carl G. Becker: 20 Years Ago

The following is a paper I wrote in college dated October 3, 1991. The assignment was to interview an older person I admire. I think the instructor gave us a list of questions to ask. I considered using parts of this in the eulogy, but instead I'm going to print a few copies for people to read at the wake.

I interviewed my grandfather, Carl Becker, age 66. He is a successful insurance salesman with no intention of retiring. “I could retire if my wife ever stopped shopping!” he joked. He has three daughters (all married) and two grandsons.

He first said he liked “nothing” about his present age, but after a laugh, he said, “I like the fact that I'm comfortable in life, that I've accomplished what I wanted to, that I have no financial worries.” He also enjoys having his family grown and spending time with them.

Grandpa doesn't consider himself old. When asked what he liked least about his age, he replied, “I dislike when people remind me that I'm over 65 because I don't feel over 65. I feel like I'm still 45 or 50.” He considers himself healthier than most men his age. He walks three miles a day and eats right. He cited two health concerns: 1) his job involves a lot of stress, and 2) Grandma still smokes (he quit about 20 years ago).

That is something he would like to accomplish in his life – to get his wife to quit smoking. She was in the room. “Did you hear that?” I asked her. “I hear it every day,” she responded stubbornly. As for other goals, “I'd like to take up the piano or the organ and learn to play, if I ever got the time.” His wildest dream is typically family-oriented: “I'd like to win the lottery so I could open the Becker Community where all my family could live. Everybody could eat breakfast together on Sunday mornings. We could get skyboxes for the Cubs and Bears...”

Grandpa's most surprising answer was what he would change if he could “do it all over again.” “I'd like to be a pastor, be in the church. Those people get more out of life than anybody else does because they help other people.” Grandpa goes to church every week, but I didn't know he felt that way. His other response was less startling: “I would want more education. I would try to get as much as I could.” Perhaps that is why he has always been supportive of my educational pursuits.

Grandpa is not afraid of death. “I don't particularly worry about it. Everybody dies so there's nothing you can do about it.” He added, with a smile, “I'm not in a hurry, though!”

“I think as long as you're healthy and you enjoy life, then you want to live. But if you're not healthy, then... Well, I wouldn't want to live if I was really suffering.”

His philosophy on aging was very positive. “You're always learning something, you're always looking forward to the things you can accomplish in the future. If you're always setting goals for yourself, your family... Then that's what keeps you young.”

“I hate when people say, 'I don't care about anything anymore. I'm ready to die.'”

“We always complain that we're too busy, but the worst people are the ones who have nothing but time. They have nothing to look forward to. I see them walk past my office all day.”

I enjoyed doing the interview. Grandpa was an easy interviewee. Sometimes I had to coax him a little, but his overall attitude was very positive. The hardest part was probably trying to get Grandpa's answer before Grandma answered the question for him!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bastard of the Day

I have a Groupon for $30 that expires today at Schuba's Harmony Grill. Usually Groupon offers are still valid after the expiration date for the amount paid, in this case $15. Some say this is at the vendor's discretion, though there are also questions about whether it is legal not to accept them. In fact, Groupon says they must. From a Groupon blog entry:
When a Groupon expires, customers can still redeem for the price they paid for the period of time defined by state law (5 years in Illinois). This is not new; it’s been in our terms of service and in every merchant contract since May of 2009 – when we were six months old and launched in two cities.
So far I've managed to spend every Groupon on time, but for obvious reasons, I haven't had a chance to go there this month. Heck, I haven't even been to Rockwell's since May, and I usually eat there two or more times a week (ditto for my weekly visit to the Corner Bakery).

I just got off the phone with Schuba's Harmony Grill, and they will NOT accept my expired Groupon for the amount paid.

Translation: I just got off the phone with Schuba's Harmony Grill, and those law-breaking bastards will never get a dime of my business.

Congratulations, Schuba's. You turned an opportunity to gain a new customer into a complete loss. Harmony, my ass!

P.S. Thanks to Groupon for crediting my account for the $15 I paid. They do a good job of standing behind their product and ensuring customer satisfaction (another example: when a restaurant closed, Groupon informed me and credited my account). So the good news is that I'm not out any money, but I'm still mad at Schuba's.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Not Like the Movies

I had a lot of writing to do (actual paying work!) today, so I figured I may as well keep Grandpa company at the hospice. They have Wi-Fi and a quiet environment with few distractions, so why not? When I announced to my family Sunday night that I intended to get up early on Monday to go to the hospice, they were doubtful. If I wake up during a single-digit hour, it's usually PM, not AM!

Monday I awoke at 6 AM, hit the road early, and beat most of the traffic on the Kennedy Expressway. After a good breakfast at the Egg Harbor Cafe (Matt's Meaty Skillet, fitting the "comfort food" theme that has been bulging the family's waistlines lately), I drove the short distance to the hospice. When the staff made rounds, the doctor told me Grandpa was deteriorating but that he could last another day or two or even five. I called my mom with an update, but mostly just to let her know I was there so early. Then I talked to a nurse who answered questions such as what can or should I say to Grandpa and how do they know when the time is near? She said it's okay to tell him to let go and to assure him that everyone will be fine. Apparently some patients miss the point of hospice and try to hang on for one reason or another. As for the other question, she said, among other things, that often patients will stop breathing for a few seconds or more (apnea) and then start up again in a cycle until eventually they just don't start up again.

I always feel weird talking to a sedated person -- who knows what he actually hears? -- but I gave it a shot. Then I went back to my writing project. Every so often I'd look over at Grandpa to see his chest rise and fall. But then I noticed he wasn't breathing. Then he started again, gasping. A bit later he stopped for what seemed like a minute but was likely 5-7 seconds.

I don't know where the nurses came from. I didn't call them, and there wasn't any kind of monitor on Grandpa that would beep a warning, but suddenly they appeared. Maybe hospice nurses are like angels on Earth, hovering in the hallways and swooping in when they sense they are needed.*

I wondered aloud, "I guess I'd better call anyone who wants to be here?" A nurse nodded. I called my mom first since she had the furthest to travel. Grandpa's breathing stopped for a bit, then started again. I called one of my aunts. No answer, and I sure as heck wasn't going to leave a message. I called my other aunt while another call (the first aunt calling back) went to my voice mail. As I frantically pressed buttons on my phone, I looked up to see one of the nurses with a stethoscope looking back at me. I don't remember any words or gestures; I could see it in her eyes. He was gone, just like that. No desperate cries or even a shudder. I've never witnessed a death before, but this was nothing like they show in the movies, just a peaceful slipping away.

Oh shit, now I have to call everyone again. I felt sort of like the lousy player they send out to right field because it's unlikely someone will hit the ball there. Then suddenly it's a long fly ball, and I run, bewildered, toward the fence to make the catch. In all the time I kept a vigil by his bed this month, I hadn't given much thought to witnessing my grandfather's last moments. Today I figured I was just hanging around to keep him company until his daughters came in the late afternoon. This wasn't supposed to happen on my watch!

It happened so quickly, too. Later someone asked what time he died, and when I looked at the record of dialed calls on my cell phone, there was a mere two-minute gap between the call telling my aunt to get here soon and the second call to say he was gone. All morning his breathing had been a little shallow yet steady, but within minutes everything had changed.

In retrospect, I'm glad I was there, and I even feel kind of honored to witness his passing, if that makes any sense. The rest of my family was glad that I was there -- if I hadn't had this project to work on, he probably would have died without anyone familiar present. I don't know whether that matters at all to the dying, but the living take comfort in such things. Although the hospice nurses discouraged the thought, I think we all felt a bit guilty after Grandma died alone.

Grandpa's journey is over after a very difficult June. He died exactly four months after his wife of 62 years. The wake is Wednesday and the funeral is Thursday, so at least this won't stretch into July. We are relieved that it's over (the hospice people assure us it's okay to feel this way) and comforted that Grandpa got to live and die on his own terms, and in such a nice place (the last intelligible words anyone heard were on Saturday when he arrived at the hospice; he looked at one of his daughters and said, "Thank you very much" -- I'd like to think he knew exactly what was going on and that we were doing what he wanted). Of course, this also means that the project I was working on this morning isn't the only writing assignment I have that's due this Thursday.

* Okay, so later my mother reminded me that they have video cameras monitoring every room. But I prefer my poetic interpretation.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Wee Bit of Good News

First, the bad news. As I wrote previously, Grandpa's condition has worsened -- he has congestive heart failure, which means his heart is still working, but not well enough to provide the blood his organs need. The doctors said the best-case prognosis would be that he might be able to sit in a chair. We know that isn't the lifestyle he would want, so that made my mom's decision (everyone agreed, but she has power of attorney) pretty clear. They disconnected his feeding tube yesterday, so now it's just a matter of time, probably less than two weeks.

The next issue was what to do about hospice care. Everyone recommended an inpatient facility in Barrington as the best place he could go. There was only one problem: Medicare will only pay for a few days of inpatient hospice care if his condition is stabilized (meaning that his pain can be managed with drugs and he isn't "actively dying"). Then he would have to go to a nursing home (which he definitely does not want) or back to his house for in-home hospice care (which isn't viable for us for a number of reasons). Grandpa has been shuttled between facilities a few times this month, and being moved is very uncomfortable for him. We don't want him to be bothered with that again in his final days. We asked the nurse how much it would cost to keep him in the inpatient facility, and she didn't know. Their focus is so much on Medicare (and probably dealing with people who have no money) that cost is never discussed. I didn't think it would cost that much money (say, under $2K), but my family noted how expensive healthcare can be, with an overnight hospital stay costing tens of thousands.

Today we got some great news: it only costs $600 a day to keep him there. Since we know it will be for a finite length of time (even a healthy person wouldn't last long without food or water), it won't be any problem to keep him there regardless of Medicare coverage. My mom just called to say he's there now. It's a really nice, quiet place, and we know he'll be comfortable there for the rest of his time on Earth.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I must have noticed before that my grandfather has blue eyes. But I know I never looked into them as I have these past three weeks. Sometimes it seems he's looking right at me. Other times he seems to be looking somewhere beyond, perhaps over my shoulder or a million miles away. Mostly those eyes are closed or half open, looking at nothing.

I keep waiting -- praying -- for that light bulb moment when he will look directly at me, his eyes will light up, and he will say something to show us that he is unequivocally back in our presence. But these things take time and it's too early to tell. Still a voice deep inside me whispers a warning that this may it, that the occasional mumbled words or nonsensical sentence may be as much as he'll ever communicate again. Never in my life have I so wished to know the future.

Some nights I see those eyes in my dreams. On scarier nights it is as if those eyes are mine, looking out on a foggy and confusing world.

I've always had the habit of taking on the mannerisms of people I spend a lot of time with. Lately when I lay down to sleep, I catch myself letting out the faint groan of despair that I sometimes hear from my grandfather in his hospital bed.

There have been a handful of good days, times when he spoke clearly and even logically. But those days came early on, and lately his condition seems worse, no matter that the latest CT scan shows nothing negative.

I wrote the previous paragraphs yesterday when I still had hope. Tonight they tell me hope is gone. He's still alive but he won't get better. This time it's his heart, and it's time to let him go. If ever I could will someone to live, it would be him. But it doesn't work that way. Sometimes no amount of hoping or praying can delay the inevitable.

In a cruel coincidence, he originally fell on my birthday and today was my mom's birthday.

After Grandma died at the end of February, I did not expect to be contemplating another eulogy so soon. Grandpa wasn't moping around with a broken heart; he missed her but overall he was doing pretty well. He enjoyed sampling new restaurants that my notoriously finicky grandmother would never go to. A couple of months ago, he had a new set of tires installed on his car. In May, when we cleared away the dozens of planting pots Grandma left in the backyard, Grandpa said he looked forward to sitting out on the patio beneath a shady tree. Not long before his fall, he had someone come and clean his outdoor grill. He wasn't supposed to die now -- he had plans, damn it.

My grandfather is a great guy, one of the greatest I've ever met. He's kind and generous and funny. He worked hard and enjoys sharing his rewards. He loves to eat and loves to pay the bill for anyone who joins him. The world will be less sweet without him in it.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Strategically (Mis)Positioned

I'm not a fan of cell phones. I carry mine when I go out -- mostly as a timepiece -- but when I'm at home, I leave it on the sideboard downstairs with my keys and wallet. I get few calls, so it usually isn't a problem.

On those rare occasions when my cell phone does ring, I'm usually upstairs in my office/man cave using the computer. After months of practice, I can consistently hear the phone ringing, get out of my chair, sprint down the hallway and stairs, move the pet gate (#%$@ cats), turn the corner, lunge for the phone, and flip it open... less than half a second after the call goes to voice mail!

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Optimist

I've never been what anyone would call an optimist. Although I consider myself to be a realist, pessimism ultimately wins out. My theory has always been this: If you expect the worst to happen, you will usually be pleasantly surprised.

This week I've been as optimistic as humanly possible. I've been to the hospital five days straight to see my grandfather, and every day I rejoice in every little bit of progress he makes.

  • Both of his eyes are open.
  • He knows where he is.
  • He ate yogurt and oatmeal for breakfast.
  • He chuckled when I said something funny.
  • They moved him out of ICU.
  • They took the bandage off his head.
  • He's not thrashing his legs about like he did before.
  • His voice is strong enough to yell at the nurse.

If there are any negatives, signs that his progress is slower than expected or that his recovery is in jeopardy, I simply refuse to see them. In fact, if someone "helpfully" mentions any such thing, I will argue vehemently.

Deep inside, I know I am acting contrary to all I have learned in 41 years of living. But now I must be an optimist. I cannot bear the alternative.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Crappy Birthday

My birthday Thursday made me glad I did something unusual and memorable last year. This year I stayed home, and while I managed to stay out of bookstores (the insane orgy of the Borders bankruptcy still fresh on my credit card statement), food was again a highlight. Though not as good as Waffle House waffles, the Philly cheese steak sandwich and cheese fries I had for lunch at Philly's Best were mighty tasty. At that point, my day had not yet gone to shit. Well, relatively speaking, at least. One might argue that my decision not to go for a bike ride that morning probably denied me my best chance of doing something really fun, so maybe I was doomed from the start (my heart just hasn't been in it lately, but that is a topic for another day).

Anyway, I thought about my grandmother throughout the day, remembering how she called to wish me a happy birthday last year as I was driving west on Interstate 74 toward the place of my birth and lamenting that she would not -- could not -- call me this year.

Around 8:30 PM my dad called to say happy birthday but also to pass along a darker message. A few hours earlier, my aunt had discovered my grandfather lying barely conscious in a pool of blood, apparently having lost his balance and fallen on his kitchen floor. My mom was at the hospital, grandpa had blood on his brain, and his chances looked grim.

Though my grandparents wouldn't have approved of the language, my first thought was Fuck.

I think my grandpa has been doing really well in the three months since his lifelong partner died. His daughters and I have been going to his house every Friday to sort through my grandma's things (she had a lot of stuff!), so I've seen him regularly. Though he misses her, he seems to have a good attitude. One hears of so many longtime couples where the widow or widower dies shortly after the spouse out of grief, giving up on life, whatever, but grandpa didn't seem like he would. Although he has had some health issues over the past few years, his doctor told him he could live to 100 -- another 15 years (his mother made it to 98 or 99, so he has good genes, and he has taken good care of himself with activity and diet -- I don't think there's a vegetable in the world he doesn't like).

And then this happened. Fuck.

This Friday I visited grandpa not at his house but at the hospital. Frankly he looked terrible, lying there sedated with bandages, bruises, and tubes everywhere. We don't really know what's going to happen at this point. The doctors exude caution and uncertainty; it's too soon to tell. Presuming he lives (I gathered that the odds are better than 2:1 in his favor), we don't know how much brain damage there might be or how long it may take him to recover from his injuries or whether he'll ever live independently again (the last is doubtful -- he really needs someone around in case he falls again).

Why does shit like this have to happen? On my birthday or any other day? Fuck.

UPDATE 1:20 PM - Good news so far. Grandpa is awake and talking somewhat ahead of schedule.