This past Friday I had the distinct pleasure of attending High Ed Web New England. The conference is for higher education professionals in all things web related – web design, UX, content creators and the list goes on (and on, and on). I was attending to represent Last Call Media, my home away from home. We (corporate “we”- Hello!) love working with higher ed institutions and non profits and what I found at this conference was so affirming as to why. The people. They’re brilliant, passionate, creative, and fun as hell! One of my LCM compatriots told me in the lobby, with a big grin, “These are your PEOPLE!” I’ll be blogging later this week for why this conference was amazing as a Last Caller but for now I want to share some thoughts just as me. Of course the two will overlap as they are certainly not mutually exclusive, we (there it is again!) are made up of humans, after all. One of whom is me.
I’m up late again because for some reason I’m regressing into the night owl patterns of yesteryear. It’s no wonder. The world is quiet, no one is expecting anything from me since my wife’s pregnancy pillow has replaced me, see previous post, and I can work through all the things zipping around my brain I haven’t given myself permission to address during the day. I always think I’ll do something grounding, but normally I find more things to do/read/ponder/learn/express. I am small in this large universe and I feel like Cate Blanchett in the last Indiana Jones movie before her brain explodes because she wants to know everything. I also feel like Cate Blanchett in Carol sometimes, but that’s another blog for another late night evening.
There was so much presented and talked about at HeWebNE that I’m still ruminating, mostly on two key terms: communication and authentic self. These are gateway words to endless expressions and explorations and they’re very central to who I am due to one woman in particular. There are mentors, and people we look up to as guardians, guides, coaches and the like and for me the most important person in each of those categories was my grandmother. When keynote speaker Dave Cameron spoke about his dear friend Eric’s impact on the world around him and his passing, my grandmother was the first person that came to mind. Dave’s central thesis and message is to share, share you, share human. With that I want to share her. I want more then an obituary to pop up on a google search of Charlotte Weslie Doxzen.
For as long as I can remember Charlotte talked about dying. She never talked about it in a morbid way, it was just…casual. It was on the same plane as chores, or changes of the season. Every day you make your bed. Spring turns into summer. Summer turns into fall. One day we’ll die.
I distinctly remember asking my parents at 5 or 6 years old if Grandma was going to die. They responded with something similar to “Well, eventually” a bit perplexed and understandably startled.
I responded, “Soon?”
They quickly parried with a “Why do you ask?”
“She talks about it like it’s happening soon, like next week.”
They laughed and said no, we don’t know when it will happen but it shouldn’t be for a long time.
She and I were always buddies. We had similar sassy-pants hard-headed personalities and we clicked. She used to pay me a nickel to make the beds when I visited every weekend and would pay me in change for other chores. I kept the change in a jar covered in stickers and when it was full we would put it in my first bank account. When I was 5 I started taking horseback riding lessons from a family friend when I visited my grandparents. I thought I was paying for them myself with all of the hard earned coins I’d saved up. Grown up me knows otherwise, but she taught me to save up, find bargains at yard sales and work hard.
We used to watch the show Crossing Over with John Edwards together, the one where the medium (not the politician) allegedly communicates with the dead. We agreed that when she “crossed over” that we’d have a code word so that I’d know if it was really her if I went on the show. We mostly watched it because they had segments on audience members families where you heard about their loved one that passed and their backstory. It was during one of these episodes that I flippantly told her at the age of 9 that I wanted to be present when she died. She was amused but intrigued. I think she was pleased with my desire to be there for her but recognized that the wishes of a 9yo for future adventures were flighty, at best, as the promise of a child.
When I look back as an adult I think she talked about death as often and as casually as she did because it’s how she was coming to terms with her own mortality. At some point she posited death as the next birth, the leaving of one known place for a new unknown. Death as ultimate change.
Fast Forward 2000s
Her eyesight began deteriorating due to macular degeneration. She had a blind spot in the center of her vision but she could see through a peripheral ring. She was an avid reader and the loss of her ability to read was devastating. She ordered books on tape, bought a screen reader which was difficult for her to use, and began studying braille. When I found out she could read any more I started recording myself reading her a book every night before I went to bed. I don’t remember finishing it, and I don’t know what happened to it. One of those projects that fizzled out. It’s a regret. She got a speaking alarm clock that she said sounded just like me. (It didn’t) It was a lovely thought though, since she said she pressed it sometimes just to remind her of me.
Sometime in late 2004 or early 2005 she was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells in bone marrow. She was given a few months to live.
She was put in hospice at home. A year later she was still in hospice and her caretakers adored her. The main woman told me it’s rare that she gets to know her patients so well, as her time with them is overwhelmingly short.
Charlotte always got to know everyone. She told me an anecdote once that I continue to remind myself of frequently: A med school professor gave a mid term exam with two questions. The first was related to the most recent course material. The second asked, “What is the name of the person who empties the trash in this room?” The students were outraged and demanded an explanation. The professor then went on to explain that they could go on to become the most brilliant doctors and surgeons in the world but if no one took out the trash their skills would be moot. Infection and disease would spread without proper sanitation and waste disposal. You do not do what you do by yourself, it is through the work of many. Know them.
Charlotte seemed to be doing remarkably well and in early 2007 she took a turn for the worse. She was found unresponsive on more then one occasion and she explained she was aware of what was going on around her but unable to move, paralyzed. I was in high school at the time and I remember being nervous every time my parents were early to picking me up from school or an activity, that they’d have news of her passing and that I had missed it. After choir one Tuesday afternoon I told them I had to go to Gettysburg to see her. I didn’t care what I missed at school, I would figure it out, but I needed to go. They agreed. The next morning I left with my dad to stay with her.
My Aunt was already staying with her and my grandfather to help with care. A hospital bed had been moved into her bedroom. Everyone tried to prepare me. “It’s bad, she’s not eating well, it’s going to be soon.” At the time I didn’t really understand why since it felt like warnings to turn back. I was a 16 year old in the early stages of coming out. Everything I thought I knew was being turned upside down and my relationship with myself was at the lowest it has ever been. There was nothing that would keep me from being with my rock, my hero and dearest friend.
I was there for a week and it was like she’d been given a second shot at life. She started talking again and got her energy back. She gave me disparaging looks at my terrible jokes and she was back from the abyss temporarily. On one of her more energetic days she told me to get a shoe box down from a top shelf in the bedroom and bring it over to her. It was stuffed with pictures of kids she had worked with at The Maryland School for the Blind decades prior. We went through each picture and she told me about the kids, their trials and triumphs, where they were from, about their families and wondering what had become of them over the years. She talked of their struggles, of how each kid was different and had unique needs. The school had become a place for young individuals with any kind of disability, not just the blind. She told me how difficult and unsupported it was at times but when they finally had a breakthrough in communication, or confidence or understanding, there was no better feeling in the world.
When we had finished I put it back on the shelf and we began to talk about the meaning of life, of her life. She knew she was at the end and was looking back on almost 84 years. She told me the only thing that was important to her were people. The people she had met and connected with along the way were the only thing worth talking about on her deathbed.
I don’t remember her very last words to me. I don’t remember the last thing I said to her, but after her week extension of life death came knocking. I held her hand as she left this world at 4:30pm the day before St. Valentine’s day.
It was snowing. She and my grandfather lived on a mountain in the middle of the woods. In the back yard they had made a clearing that was surrounded by huge pines. I went outside and laid down in the middle of the snow covered field. My mind was so clear as I lay on the ground, trees peeping out of my peripheral vision and snow flakes melted on my uncovered face. I don’t know how long I lay there. Ten minutes? An hour? I had no sense of time as I listened to the silence, the quiet of the world and for once, a quiet mind. Serenity.
The next day we began to make arrangements and the woman from hospice came by. She started crying when she found out Charlotte had left her a note and left her a beautiful wooden carved figure of the Virgin Mary. The figure had been the focus of a discussion they had had a few months prior, when she confided in Charlotte over a personal matter. She remembered.
So You’ve Read Down to Here. Good Job.
What started all of this was sharing. She and I connected for many reasons but the key was sharing. She shared herself with me and she allowed me to share me, my authentic self with her. Sharing is a giving AND receiving. It’s listening, seeing and understanding others and letting them listen, see and understand you.
I wanted to share a bit of her with you. Thanks for listening.
Check out Dave’s site and #sharehuman
For a play by play of his inspiring keynote, Jackie Vetrano has you covered .