ALS Awareness Month

ALS took my Mother

May is ALS awareness month…I am quite aware.  It is also the month of Mother’s Day and my mother’s birth month.  They are all related.  I lost my mother due to complications of ALS on January 2, 1969.  I’m quite aware and have never come to grips with it..

ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, it is commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  It is not one of the more prolific diseases, only six-thousand new cases per year, only two deaths per one hundred thousand.  There is no cure.  My mother heard it’s banshee howl in 1963 and passed during my Freshman year in college.  Five plus years…the upper end of the projected life span after diagnosis.  I find little comfort in those facts.

The disease causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles.  Death of neurons causes the affected muscles to weaken and atrophy.  The heart is a muscle as is the diaphragm that allows you lungs to work.  The disease allows the brain to stay strong and aware…aware that their bodies are dying around it.

ALS is one of those diseases you get to watch your loved one waste away in slow motion.  Her symptoms began with a limp and a twitch in her foot.  She became unable to work, then unable to walk, unable to sit for more than a short period of time.  Finally, she became hospitalized…well not finally, I guess.  Finally, she died.

She spent Christmas with us that year.  She wanted to come home one more time.  An ambulance carried her home from Columbia and then returned her.  We visited on the 1st. I remember sneaking a visit to the waiting room, pausing to watch OJ Simpson take off on an eighty-yard run before his USC Trojans fell to Rex Kern’s Ohio State Buckeyes.  The odd things you remember when trying to forget your mother’s struggle to breathe.

She died just after midnight.  She was forty-eight but the ravages made her look older.

My mother, Eldora at home, Mary at work, Mom to me, was a robust red head, covered in freckles with a complexion that turned lobster red after a brief walk in the sun.  She did not tan.  A true Irish, fish-belly white redhead, she blistered.

I remember a woman who was quick to laugh but few of her pictures show her smiling. I just don’t remember what her laugh sounded like.  I don’t remember her voice.  I try to hear her voice in my aunt’s voice but I’m unsure.  I want to remember the voice that goes with my vision.  I’ll have to be satisfied remembering her smile, something she didn’t do enough.

The disease robbed me of memories.  I remember snatches of things, her teaching me how to find a breakout on a loom, and tying a weaver’s knot comes to mind and I really don’t know why.  There are other memories, some good…some bad.

Despite her laugh, I have the memory of a woman who was shy and somewhat proper…reserved?  If she was my grandmother’s child, she was reserved.   I remember her dressing in shorts around the house or on vacation, but I can never remember seeing her in pants…she dressed to the nines whenever out and about.

She was a weaver at Springs Mill and for some reason, her work seemed to dominate her life and my memories.  There was church,  the whole family sitting on the “special” pew. There was friends, trips to town, and visits to see family and friends.

Most Sundays were dominated by the church, an early morning breakfast of pancakes prepared by my dad before I polished my shoes and dressed.  After lunch a visit to either the Yarbrough’s, Wilson’s, or Sutton’s home or a visit by them to ours.  Sometimes it was family…a lot of the time it was family.

We always ate supper at home.  Regardless of the work schedule, we ate supper together.  Many nights it was a TV dinner, but we ate together.  Spaghetti on Saturday nights was a staple and Sunday’s dinner was always prepared at home after church.  There seems to have been more hours in the day back then.

I see her dressed for work, a pale-colored, cotton blouse with a rope of thread looped around her neck.  An A-line, lightweight skirt with an apron, never pants or shorts, her reed hook, and scissors in little pouches sewn into the apron.  A fashion statement?  She loved her job, a hard job but she loved it just the same.  Her job was where many friends who called her Mary were…and my father, Ernest, was there too.

The disease robbed her.  She was forced to go on disability shortly after I began my brief career working summers in the same weave room.  I had one summer with her.  It was almost as if my father, her loom fixer, was cheating on her as he fixed looms for another weaver.

I never gave my father enough credit for what he did while he was alive.  I didn’t understand how much he loved her.  He was attentive to a fault…there were fights…but he was there, by her side, doing what he needed to do.  I remember some nights when she was in the hospital he played solitare, tears in his eyes.

Playing solitare when he should have been resting for the six A. M. shift the next morning. It must have been painful watching his beautiful wife waste away.  Once she was in the hospital in far Columbia, he worked Monday thru Saturday, sometimes extra shifts before going to Columbia, every weekend, before starting over again on Monday.

She was chosen for a medical study.  I’m not sure they found out much.  Too much iron in her spinal fluid but there is still no cure.  I don’t know what we would have done had she not been accepted.  I know she wouldn’t have lived as long as she did without it.

Most weekends we traveled the seventy-seven miles to the State Hospital, first on Bull Street, later a closer new building just off I-26.  I remember the visits as painful.  I now realize how selfish I was, how I wished I could have been anywhere else, now wishing I could have a do over.

She took up painting when she became disabled, something to while away the hours.  I don’t know if she was good or not, I thought she was a Rembrandt.  The disease didn’t take that from her until the end.  Normally a disease that attacks men, ALS usually begins in the hands and arms.  Hers began in her legs and progressed upward.  Gradually it affected her breathing but never got to her hands.  Atypical…except her death.

The disease robbed her…and her children.  She never had the opportunity to see her grandchild or see her eldest son finally get “it” right.  Her youngest son got it right, to begin with.  She would be proud of the man he grew into and I’m sorry his memories are different than mine.

She would have been sixty-six when Ashley, my daughter, was born and would have loved Ashley and Linda and they would have loved her.  She would have been ninety-seven when Miller Kate was born.  Not impossible…not possible.

Yes, it is ALS Awareness Month.  It is easy to be aware when famous people are diagnosed or fall to the disease.  The famous like Lou Gehrig, Stephen Hawking, Dwight Clark, Sam Sheppard, and Jim Hunter come to mind.  They were robbed too.  Their families were robbed.  It is impossible for their families to think of them without thinking of being robbed by ALS.  I know this for a fact.

I had five years to prepare myself for her death, but I wasn’t prepared.  I refused to think about it, refused to believe it right up until I awoke just after midnight on the second of January.  I remember looking at the clock just before the phone rang.  I have successfully purged the time from my memory.

I wish I could remember my mother’s laugh.

The image is of Mary Eldora Miller at the beach in the late 1950s before the ravages of ALS…still she doesn’t smile.

 

Addendum

It turns out my Mother did smile…a picture from my brother.

Mom 2

Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at  https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0FpZWCw_9me-FJa090w819hiX7LbcAUATfvvwRGENNYrUw_sol75s7tj4.

Proceeds from any book purchased or downloaded during May will be matched and donated to the National ALS Association to help support their research efforts.

Questions With No Answers

 

Before social distancing became the in thing, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in thirty years…jeez…more like forty.  I was excited to see her…considering our history excited is not the best descriptor.  Thrilled is a better word.  I was thrilled to see her.

We had a short-term tryst back in the day…just scratching certain itches.  Nothing heavy, a “friends with benefits” kind of thing before “friends with benefits” was a thing…it was the “free love” Seventies after all.  As I think back, I realize there was nothing free about love or even its unreasonable facsimile, lust.

She didn’t recognize me, even when I tried to explain who I was.  Despite the empty feeling in my stomach, I didn’t push it.  She seemed anxious in a bad way.  I think she’s had a stroke or is self-medicating…am I being narcissistic?  Maybe it was my beard, the balding head?  No, I believe there was something wrong.

She seemed frail and infirm.  A woman who once strode through the world confidently was reduced to little shuffles reminiscent of a Chinese woman who had had her feet bound.  The strong alto voice lacked volume and power.  The tall, long-legged, pleasing body seemed to be collapsing in on itself.  Always slender in a good way, she was much too thin.  Maybe it was me looking back on memories through my rose-colored reading glasses.

We remained friends after we both moved on to other places and people…at least I thought we had.  At some point, she seemed to disappear…but, not from memory.  I’ve thought of her often over the years wondering what happened to her.  Wondering if she was happy.  Remembering how foolish I had been.

I wondered if she had moved to a distant part of the world.  Whenever I asked friends, “Have you heard from….”, the answer was always in the negative.

In the mid-80s she decided she was gay and fell under the influence of a “stereotypical” lesbian woman.  You may substitute whatever “stereotype” you wish.  This woman is much more than a stereotype and stereotypes are such oversimplifications.

Still, the time was the Eighties and I was shocked and full of questions.  I’ve often wondered if she crossed over because she was truly lesbian or was it because she had been wounded so many times by people of my gender…or was it I was such a bad lover and friend I drove her to it.  Insecure much?  Ah…yes!

She stumbled and fell over several relationships during those late Seventies and early Eighties.  I wonder if I helped to trip her up as she attempted to recover.  An unwanted splinter under the fingernail of life.  You can tell she is an enigma, she always was.

Are my concerns more about me and my own guilt?  Is it about my own narcissism?  Is it my over-inflated self-importance?  Questions I can’t answer.  Maybe questions I fear to answer.  My greatest question, “Are you happy?”  I hope the answer is yes.

There are questions I can’t even ask.  My friend has dropped off the face of the earth even though she lives exactly where she has always lived.

I think about the crowd we ran with during those thrilling days of yesteryear.  Those days we were lucky to survive.  Those of us still alive have remained in touch.  More so as we have gotten older.  It is as if she has cut all ties with those days and the people who inhabited them with her.   Maybe she wanted to move forward while the rest of us are pulled toward the past.  I know I once did the same thing when my own mistakes became too much of a burden.  Memories too painful to remember…except you do.

Questions, more questions.  Answers, no answers.

***

Don Miller’s author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0813oF-UzSxgl3eyxNYLytu5JhnD70NuizUBdFlbjT2LTyVAXjPEBJZZE

A Memory

My junior year in high school, Paul Neal’s retirement as principal caused a domino effect as my football and baseball coach, Bennett Gunter was named principal and his assistant coach, Randolph Potts, became head football and baseball coach.  Two more hats to add to an already crowded resume.  He was already the basketball coach, as in girl’s and boys’ basketball coach.  Oh, he taught science and physical education too.

This was fifty years ago when coaching staffs were just a bit smaller than they are now.  We had two football coaches…total.  I coached high school football for twenty-nine years and even our junior varsity staffs had more coaches by then.

Coach Potts passed away this weekend which is causing me to reflect on the strange and wonderful relationships between coaches and their players.  I feel honored to have been on both sides of the equation and honored to have been coached by Coach Potts.

Coaching and the game of football have changed drastically since the late summers of 1966 and 1967. For thirty-three years, through many of those changes, football was an integral part of my life either playing or coaching it.  I had many coaches and mentors who helped teach me a philosophy of coaching.  As I think back, Randy Potts gave me my first building block.

I was not totally unfamiliar with the new head coach.  He had been a fixture since my first season as an aspiring player and my position coach those previous years.  I remember a tall man with a blond flat top, a prominent nose, and a cheek stretched wide with a “chaw” of tobacco.  A blue wool baseball cap with a gold IL on the front.  A gray tee shirt over khaki pants, rolled up to show white socks and black coach’s shoes…oh, my god, he was my coaching fashion icon too.

I was a terrible athlete, an even worse football player, and fortunate to play on a team with a small number of players.  It gave me a chance to play and I had the opportunity to display my ineptness on many occasions.  One example stands out more than others and drew the deserved wrath of Coach Potts.  At home against Pageland, I met soon to be South Carolina standout Al Usher on the five-yard line with time running out in the first half.  I brought him down ten yards later in the middle of the end zone.  I’m glad halftime was just seconds away, had Coach Potts had any more time to percolate over my effort he might have killed me.  Instead, I got my ears pinned back, shoulder pads pounded, a spray of tobacco juice and a face full tobacco breath to go with it.  No, he was not happy.  Years later, as I began my own coaching career, I would understand.

The following year, also against Pageland, we played in a miserable, torrential, game long downpour.  We moved the ball up and down the field but managed to only put a touchdown on the scoreboard.  We missed the extra point.  Backed up, late in the game I snapped the ball over my punter’s head for a safety.  Pageland scored after the ensuing free kick and despite missing their extra point try, I was lower than whale poop.  We lost eight to six.  It is the only game score I can recall.

I have clear remembrances of sitting in the visiting dressing room, uniform running in water, afraid to look at any teammate eyeball to eyeball.  I wanted to cry but back then real men never cried.  No one said they blamed me which wasn’t the problem, I blamed me.

Coach Potts ambled over and sat down, creating one of those defining moments in a young man’s life.  He said, “Son, don’t blame yourself.  If we had done the things we were supposed to do, that snap wouldn’t have mattered.  Tomorrow the sun will shine…if it quits raining.”  This time he patted me on the shoulder pads.  It did quit raining.

I referred to the moment as defining because as I began my teaching and coaching career, his statement helped guide me.  A game may hinge on one play but if everyone does their job, no one play should matter.  If it does, it’s everyone’s fault, a team sport.  I had a couple of occasions to pass his statement on to needy players.

Some twenty-five years later I got to tell him what his warmhearted and compassionate comment meant to me.  For some forgotten reason, he was in Greenville and asked if he could stop by my office at Greenville High.  I was in the middle of finding out I was not football head coaching material and he was trying to sell life insurance, but we were able to spend some quality time together.  I didn’t buy any insurance, but I do remember telling him what the effect of his words was and how they helped shape who I was.  Today I am thankful I had that opportunity.

Rest in Peace Coach Potts and thanks. The former player whose error kept us out of the state championship thanks you too.  He just didn’t know it was you.

Don Miller’s author’s site may be found at https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B018IT38GM?redirectedFromKindleDbs=true

 

 

Ghosts

I do believe in ghosts.  Why shouldn’t I?  My home and the surrounding land is full of them.

A ghost, by definition, is the soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear to the living.  Whether the appearance is a sound, like the creaking of my old house settling or a critter treading on the old pine floors. A fleeting glimpse of some unknown something out of the corner of my eye, just beyond my periphery, triggering a long-forgotten memory.  The way certain shadows fall in the moonlight or an old song that conjures up a ghost from the past.  It’s a ghost even if their spirit resides only in my head.

My favorite quote about ghost was made by NCIS agent Mike Franks, a favorite reoccurring character on the long-running TV program NCIS.  In a conversation with Gibbs about ghosts, Franks allows that ghosts were “But the memories we make. We fill the spaces we live in with them. That’s why I’ve always tried to make sure that wherever I live, the longer I live there the spaces become filled with memories of naked women.”  Well, there is only one memory in my living space of a naked woman and thankfully she is not a memory.

But there are other memories….

I arose early as is my infernal habit.  Standing in the dark, also an infernal habit, I looked through the broad window beyond my kitchen sink gazing into the bright moonlight dappling the flat between my home and my stream.  There was a huge full moon, rapidly setting just above the tall trees on the ridge above casting long shadows that danced in the open space below.

Just off to the side, away from the direction I was looking, I saw her in the mottled moonlight.  I saw her white and black markings…as I often do.  When I looked directly at her…she was gone.  She has been gone now for thirteen years…roaming somewhere on the hillside above us.  Ghostly in the way she continues to remind us of her, lost but not forgotten at all.  A ghost never to fear, only to remember and smile.

Sassy Marie came to us, not us to her.  She left the same way…on her terms.  Everything about Sassy Marie was to be savored on her terms.  If she wanted to be petted, she came to us.  If we wanted to pet, she ran away, leery of what our motivation might be.  If she wanted to come into the house, which was very rare until late in her life, she came in, with or without invitation.  Sassy Marie invited herself through the back gate of our hearts and stayed for sixteen years…until she decided it was time for her to leave.

She was a black and white, border collie mix, a discarded puppy or a runaway.  For several days she survived on the small lizards or road kill outside of our little piece of heaven.  If I tried to make friends…she ran away, only to return later in the day.  Linda Gail enticed her through the back gate with morsels of food and the then-unnamed Sassy Marie decided to stay.  I probably should tell that story differently.  Sassy Marie enticed Linda Gail to open the gate and give her food is a truer rendering of the story.

Sassy Marie was the most infuriating, a contrary, disobliging, lovable, caring, wonderous paradox I have ever encountered…well…next to my bride.  She had the uncanny ability, a type of sixth sense, to know when we were talking about giving her a bath.  She would find a way to disappear into our small, fenced in backyard until that bit of foolishness passed.  Put a leash on her?  Not on your life.  She would look at us as if to say, “I was born to be free of the shackles of life…and no I ain’t wearin’ no collar.”

She realized how well she had it.  No way she would ever walk out of an open gate, invited or not.  Even when we had to tear down a part of the fence during renovations she still refused to set foot outside of her kingdom…until she did.  Again, it was her idea…not ours.

We walked an old logging road and prowled over our kingdom.  Every ravine, every stream that cut it was an adventure.  After thirty plus years the adventures are still there.  Sassy Marie would wait patiently for our return, laying at the back gate, next to the torn down sections.  One day she decided to go with us…she decided and enticed Santana the stray, adopted cat to come with us too.  It was an odd caravan.  Santana yelling in cat, “Wait, wait on me,” until she got tired and laid down refusing to go one step further.  Sassy Marie would lead…until she grew tired or aggravated.  We would find ourselves alone and worry when there was no need.  We would return and find her laying at the gate…with Santana close by.

Sassy Marie had grown weary by her sixteenth year…her sixteenth year with us.  She was older, we just didn’t know how much older.  We knew she was not long for our world and so did she.  On the Christmas Day Linda Gail and I were to drive to visit family in Texas, she disappeared.  We got a late start.  We searched high and low, the ridges and the stream beds, as darkness and our feelings fell.  We knew but we hoped and called our house sitters almost hourly.  Sassy Marie had made her decision to leave us on her own terms…just as she joined us.

Flat rocks, cypress cedars, small clumps of daffodils and a birdhouse on a post mark resting places for our special, animal children.  Lovely goats, a one-legged rooster, bunny rabbits, black cats and a slew of puppy dogs rest in special places…around our grounds and in our hearts.

There is no special memorial for Sassy Marie, except in our hearts…and the marbled shadows of the moonlight or the green shaded leaves moved by the wind.  Her spirit moves along the ridges above our house, in the valleys along the stream beds and in the periphery of our vision and our hearts.

Ghost is a selection from Don Miller’s new release “Cornfields…in My Mind.”  It may be downloaded at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07CBSV237

FOR LAURA…AND ME

 

I’ve tried to write this tribute a thousand times.  In my head, as I put it on paper, the words never come as easily as I would like and never seem to do her justice.  You asked simply, “Tell me about my mother.  I never got to know her.”  Laura, it is a huge task because I never got to know her as well as I would have wished either.  I empathize because I lost my mother at an early age and wish I had time to know my own mother better.  I do know where your question comes from.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, specifically the week of September 10th and I feel led to write about the woman who prevented one suicide and possibly a second, one at the cost of her own life.  I need to write it for both you and for me…maybe more for me.  I remember that terrible morning…and still feel the sense of loss accompanying it.  I can only imagine the loss you feel and the hardships that go with that feeling.

Laura, I have suffered from clinical depression for the past forty years…this year.  In the spring of 1977, I had no idea what was causing my anxiety and despair.  I feared I was just going “crazy.”  Had your mother not interceded in my “craziness” I may never have been diagnosed, or worse, may have followed through with a terrifying, soul-searching debate involving myself and a pistol.  It was she who consoled me, quieted my tears and suggested I go to my doctor.  Suggested is not a strong enough word but the only word I have.  She gave me a fighting chance, one I have not squandered…yet.

I remember her deep laugh and somewhat gravelly voice due in part from too many Virginia Slims.  It was a different time.  A pixie in stature and butterfly in personality, she never-the-less cast a huge shadow over all those she touched…and not because of the awards she had won but because of the person she was.  As a second-year teacher, I was terrified of her until she disarmed my fear with her laugh…and her care for an immature, twenty-four-year-old child.  Your mother was never too busy to give council.  She was a mentor, a friend, and a mother figure.

I remember so many conversations, many involving you.  I remember those first few years of my career, dutifully reporting to the storage room behind the lab that contained her “very cluttered” desk.  Asking questions, trying to understand how electrons could be both a particle and a wave, or how I could have such a good life and feel so depressed.  She, teaching me right before I had to teach a class that could have cared less about quantum mechanics or why all objects fall at the same rate regardless of mass.  Somehow making it all understandable to a history major masquerading as a physical science teacher.  Until the afternoon after I had fallen apart.  The afternoon after my conversation with my pistol.  She cried with me as I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain what I was feeling…despair, hopelessness, and desperation, not realizing she was living on the other side of suicide until a morning when it was too late.

She was proud of you, that you can be assured.  More importantly, she would be proud of you now.  I remember an impish or elfin little freshman from so long ago…so much the image of her mother I now realize.  Your mother was so very delighted and content to have you close by.  Lugging a huge musical instrument from class to class, from our conversations I realize, as a grown woman, you have been lugging around a huge burden all your life.  In some ways, the same burden your mother carried around, never letting on.

Your mother was a loving person and person who was loved…by students, her teaching peers, and her administrators.  She was respectful to her classes and her classes were respectful of her…not to say she didn’t believe in tough love in some, necessary situations.  She looked for the best in people and I believe she was rarely disappointed.  In many cases, you get exactly what you look for, something we should all remember.  The most important thing you need to remember about your mother is that she loved you and she was proud of you.  I believe she is proud of you now and the sacrifices you have had to make.  You have been a loving and dutiful daughter.  She would also be sad because of those same sacrifices and would tell you to unburden yourself.

Laura, your mother had a very profound effect on not only me but everyone she mentored, and most assuredly those students she encountered.  I am saddened you didn’t get to know her as well as I did as an adult, but I’m also confident she taught you lessons you don’t even know you learned.  I believe the best way to learn about your mother is to consider the “metaphorical” mirror.  If you gaze into it you will see more of her than you realize.  I believe you are a lot like her…in the most positive of ways.

With love, Don.

This is National Suicide Prevention Month.  To learn how you can support suicide prevention, please use the following link:  https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide and you feel you have no one to talk to please call their life line at 1-800-273-8255

To read more from Don Miller please use the following link to his author’s page:  https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM