Friday, July 8, 2011


Nope, this is not going to be about what you think it’s going to be about; I’m not going to bring up questions like how did a very healthy person get brain cancer, how did the “Magic Bullet” treatment not work at all, what happened that caused his rapid decline at the end, etc., right now.  This is about a different set of questions.

From the time Dad was admitted to the hospital on October 23, 2010, every time a medical professional entered the scene, he or she asked Dad a set of questions as part of a check on his neurological status.  Sometimes the questions were more detailed and complex, but the basic ones were always the same:

         *What’s your name?
         *What’s today’s date?
         *How old are you?
         *Where are we?
         And sometimes, a Bonus: How did you get here?

As I’ve mentioned, Competitiveness runs in our family.  For example, when my grandmother was mobile and somewhat alert in the nursing home where she spent the last few years of her life, she told us repeatedly (and on several occasions actually demonstrated for us) that she was the fastest person there on her walker and, later, in her wheelchair.

I don’t think Dad fully realized why these Questions were being asked of him on a regular basis, but, because of this Competitiveness, he did NOT want to answer any of them incorrectly.  

The first few times they were asked of him when he was awaiting surgery in the neuro-ICU, he threw out guesses for all except the first one. I’m sure he could see the shock and disappointment all-around when he didn’t get the majority of them right.  That plus the Competitiveness equaled Fierce Motivation: Dad started saying, “I’ve got to start getting those damn Questions right!”

And so, like any good nerd/competitive person would do, we started a Study Group.  “Quiz me!” Dad said, over and over, especially when he thought the nurse or doctor was about to come into his hospital room. 

I’m sure any of the medical people who suspected that quizzing or prompting might be going on thought it was because we were all in Denial that something was so wrong that Dad couldn’t correctly answer the Questions.  And maybe that was part of the reason, but, honestly, it was more the Competitiveness. 

And so I coached him, just like Dad had coached me in so many training sessions when I was running competitively in middle school and high school.  Sometimes his answers were correct but in a veiled way that required explanation from one of us who knew him so well and knew what he meant; for example, the first dozen times he was asked about his location, his answer involved something about working out or swimming, as in “I’m where I can swim laps in a great pool.” 

Admittedly, this seems like an answer that should have resulted in a Big Red “X” going into the chart, unless it was accompanied by the Assist:  The hospital was directly across the street from a very nice gym that was one of the places Dad went to train for the Ironman, including swimming in their Olympic-sized pool.  HE WAS CORRECT BY PROXY, and we wanted the record to reflect that. 

The other question for which he needed back-up when it was posed to him the day before his surgery was the Date Question.  He repeatedly said the date was “10-26-43,” which seems like material for another Big Red “X” until it’s put into context:  that was his date of birth; it was his birthday that day, and, instead of saying the month, day, and year that it actually was, he was substituting a rotely-learned year, one that he had written countless times over his 67 years.

He eventually got most of them right, at least when we provided the Assist, except for the Bonus Question, which he was never really clear on.  But then again, neither was anyone else, so let’s just say that one doesn’t count.

                             I heard Dad sing this song hundreds of time over the years.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"I’ll Be in the Boat"

As anyone who ever knew him would attest, my dad was an exceptional athlete.  One of the goals he set for himself several summers was to swim across Lake George in upstate New York, a distance of about 2 miles, a swim that involved identifying a location on the shore across the lake and “siting” on that specific point while also watching out for ski boats, jet skiers, and sail boaters.

Because of the distance of the swim and the other traffic in the fairly rough water, each time Dad and any other family members or friends set out to do this swim, others of us provided a boat escort to keep the swimmers pointed in the right direction and to call the attention of other boaters to them in the water.

Dad loved doing this swim.  He liked the feeling of accomplishment and the bragging rights that came after he did it each time.  The fact that everyone else who ever completed the swim with him was half his age was icing on the cake for him.  

Following is an exchange that occurred during one of the many late night conversations that Dad wanted to have while he was sick as he mulled things over in his head:

“Girls?” Dad called out in the dark of the ICU room to be sure that my sister Jennifer and I, his Night Shift Crew that night, were listening.

“Yeah, Dad?”

“You know how I usually swim across the Lake George with Peter and Lee and Kristen while you are in the boat?”

“Yeah, Dad?”

“I’m pretty sure I may not make it across again, but I’ll be in the boat.” 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Denial - Six Months Later

There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”

Denial has been a better Friend to me over the past 9 months than I ever would have believed it could be.  Yesterday marked the six-month point since Dad went on ahead.  SIX MONTHS!  That makes me sick to my stomach.  The hourglass is glued to the table and I want to throw myself to the floor and beat the ground with my fists, like a two year-old child.  Believe me, if I thought that would help anything or make me feel one iota better, I would do it!

I’ve heard the transition between this world and the next compared to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly.  I don’t like this metaphor, though; I prefer a tree turning into petrified wood. 

I believe my family and I did everything we knew to do to help Dad while he was sick.
I believe Dad is ok, but I’m not sure I will ever be.  I don’t even know what “ok” is anymore.
I believe that I am a different person than I was nine months ago.
I believe that in some ways I am stronger than I was before Dad got sick, but in even more ways I am much more fragile.
I believe Dad wants me to be truly happy; I'm just not sure I can make it all the way there without him.

I wonder how this is affecting my family.
I wonder how this is going to get better.
I wonder how I will remember this time and the “me” of now.
I wonder if I won’t always remember his face, his voice, his pride, and his pain and if there is a way that I can MAKE SURE that I do remember it all.
I wonder what comes next.

I see the birds circling over my head, and I am doing everything I know how to do to keep them from nesting in my hair. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Photos From Vietnam

Airman 4 William Bullard
I recently came across some photos that I had never seen before that my Dad took while he was serving in the Air Force, including pictures from the Philippines and Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Dad running in Vietnam

What is it about War that so often draws grown met back to it in their memories when they are nearing the end of their journey?  Is it that it was so terrible, that it transformed them, that it gave them perspective, that it “grew them up”, that it was something they regretted, or that it was something they were so proud to have done?

The only things I ever remember my dad telling me while I was growing up about his time in Vietnam was that it was a beautiful country to which he’d one day like to return and that his job there was guarding weapons on the night shift.  To keep himself awake during his shift, he often ran around the perimeter of the storage area he was guarding.  He said he hated it when his dog tags hit against his chest when he ran, and so, since he knew he had to have them on his person at all times, he just put them into his jock strap while he ran.

Dad at Clark AFB
A water buffalo in Vietnam ~ photo by BB

During the time that Dad was sick, though, on several occasions he talked about Vietnam and his time in the Air Force.  When he had the high fever that landed him in the hospital for the second and final time, he was hallucinating from the pain, the fever, and later from the medicine they gave him to try to relieve the first two.  As they often do in the hospital, a nurse asked him what his level of pain was on a scale of 1 to 10 when he was admitted.  Even around the time of his diagnosis and brain surgery, I’d never heard him say that his pain was more than a 7, but this time he said it was a 9.

We wanted the nurse to take note that his 9 was like most other people’s 109; he just didn’t notice pain like other people and, when he did, he didn’t complain about it or let it stop him from doing anything.  He immediately tried to retract the 9, though, by saying, “I don’t want to complain!  I don’t want to be a wimp!  Soldiers in trenches in Vietnam had their legs blown off and they could say their pain is a 9, but I shouldn’t say that!”  If anyone had asked me what the level of pain in my heart was on a scale of 1 to 10 at that time, I would have said a 10+. 

One thing I haven’t gotten to yet in this blog is that my family is also grieving for my dad’s mother, who died a little less than four months after my dad did.  Grandmom was fiercely independent, but she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for about three years.  She was very religious and, at 90 years old, was one of those people who has lived her life and was ready to go on ahead.  Thus, her passing brought us a different kind of grief.  Grief, still, though, and maybe there is more to come from her passing because we are still trying to move through the Quicksand of Grief after Dad’s death. 

Border between Laos and Vietnam ~ photo by BB
At Hundred Islands (Philippines)
"Sure beats a tent!" Dad wrote on the back of this one

"Market Place on Laos Border" ~ photo by BB

Monks in Vietnam ~ photo by BB

Mt. Lemmon Air Force Station ~ photo by BB

"Negrito at Negrito Village," Dad wrote on the back.
Radar Station at Mt. Lemmon AF Station ~ photo by BB
"Typical Thai family house," Dad noted on this one
The pictures I found were ones that he had mailed to his mother while he was overseas.  Like Grandmom did with all correspondence that she’d ever received, she filed those photos away for future reference, and they were part of what my parents saved from her house when they packed up her belongings when she moved into the nursing home. 

My dad’s mom wasn’t the kind of person who held children in her lap or spouted out frequent I love you’s or you’re so cute’s, but she was fiercely proud of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, and she let us know that in her own way.  I imagine her heart almost burst with pride and at the same time almost broke with fear and sadness many years ago when she watched her teenaged son board the bus that was bound for the Air Force base from where he was going to the Vietnam War.

 Grandmom wasn’t unloving or unemotional, she was practical:  when she told Dad goodbye when he left to go to Vietnam, she didn’t cry.  I asked her about it once, how it was to let him go into such a dangerous place, to go off to war, to go away on a journey that he might not come back from and from which he certainly wouldn’t come back as the same person.  She said, “I didn’t see the point of crying; crying seemed useless and wasteful, and I didn’t want to make him worry or feel badly that he had to go.  He was going, there was nothing I could do about it.  I just hoped and prayed that he would get there safely, and I made myself think about how wonderful it would be when I got to see him again.”

Ironic, because now that I think about what she said, I realize that those were the same words that went through my head on the day that my dad died.

You were a brave soldier to the end, Dad.  I hope you made it just fine and that it’s beautiful over there; I hope that you can tuck in your dog tags or your angel wings or whatever you have over there while you’re running in the clouds.  I'm making myself think about how wonderful it will be when I get to see you again one day.

Dad and his best friend Wayne on a patriotic run, celebrating America the Beautiful