July 8, 2016

The Long Road: Life and Leaving…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm

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The war had got in everything: it was in things that moved,
and in things that were still, in the animate red silence of an
old brick wall as well as in all the thronging life and traffic
on the streets. It was in the faces of the people passing, and
in ten thousand familiar moments of man’s daily life and
business…

—Thomas Wolfe
_______________

It had been coming to me, lately. And it has closed in close, how strange and fleeting life is. And how random. And the strangeness and randomness of it all was triggered in me, when two people I knew traveled on from this life, real recently. And no, I can’t say I knew either of them that well. And no, I don’t know all the details of who they were and what they were to the world around them every day. I just know their lives impacted mine in their own time and in their own ways.

And it’s like the Tyndale people told me, way back when I was writing my book. Your story is your story, and the people whose lives touched yours are part of that story. And you can include them in the narrative, as long as you stay within the boundaries of what you saw and lived and felt, and what you know.

Well, this is a little sliver of my story. And I saw and lived and felt every shred of that little sliver.

A brief review, to start. We all know how my heart gave out last November, and how I almost didn’t make it through. Well, if you read my stuff now and then, you know that. If you don’t, there’s no reason you should. I came that close, and I’m holding my thumb a smidgen from my forefinger here, I came that close to passing on along. But somehow, I didn’t. I guess it just wasn’t my time. The doctors got me pulled back, and I returned to my home after ten days, feeling fragile, very alone, and a little frantic.

And the doctors told me, when I left. You will always be weak. Your heart will always be like an old man’s. That’s what they tell anyone who had congestive heart failure. I went home and felt my way along for a few weeks, like a blind man fumbling his way through the night. And then I started working my way back.

In late February, I went back to the hospital for my heart ablation. That’s what they do when you have A-Fib, which is what I had and what caused the congestive failure. I wrote about that little journey back when it happened. It was like taking a hike out into the wilderness, going under for the operation. It all went well, better than I could have hoped for. And Dr. B called Janice right after the operation, before I even came back up, like I had told him to. “Everything went fantastic,” he said to her. And then he added one more thing. “There is significant improvement in his heart strength.” Janice dutifully called me later that afternoon and told me what Dr. B had said. And I thought. Hmm. Significant improvement, eh? I sure wonder what he means by that.

What he meant by that was that my heart had improved back to 100% strength, a thing they had told me would never, never happen. I simply rejoiced. And no, I didn’t make any vows about what I would or wouldn’t do to keep my heart that way. I was simply gonna live, because every day I lived my life was a gift that I should never have seen, not when you look at the odds. I’m still grateful every day. And I realize that my life is just a vapor, that it could end, just like that. My heart could collapse without warning. Or I could walk in front of a truck, or some such thing. Tomorrow is promised to no one. No one. Not for any reason. That’s the bottom line, and that’s the knowledge and perspective I try to keep close to me in my heart.

And I know. This all seems like a bunny trail, if you’re a regular reader. Yeah, yeah, you’re thinking. I know all this. What’s your point? Well, I can tie it all together if you hang in there with me. I think I can, anyway.

I’m not sure if it was just before or just after that operation. It was close to one side or the other. And I was feeling pretty good every day. And one day, here comes a phone call from my sister, Rachel. She texts me now and then, with news. And she calls to chat, now and then, too. This time she was calling. And she told me. “Magdalena Eicher is in serious condition in a hospital in Kansas City. She has serious, serious heart issues, and she has refused any corrective surgery because the chances of success are so low. She plans to return to her home community soon. In the meantime, here’s the number for her hospital room. You need to give her a call, now. Today.” Well, I mean, there were some grunts scattered in there, from me. But that was the gist of what she said.

Well. When my sister Rachel calls and tells me to call someone, I generally listen pretty close. I don’t always do as she tells me. But I always hear what she’s saying.

Magdalena Eicher. I had not seen or spoken to that woman for decades and decades. I thought about her now and then, and kind of kept track of where she was and how she was doing. And she was strong enough in my memory that she came out in my book, in my childhood years. Ms. Eicher, my teacher in first and second grades. I don’t know what it was about her. She was just an ordinary Amish girl, teaching school, totally untrained. But I have always remembered her quite vividly, and her impact on my life. I’ve never really analyzed why. From here, looking at it, I think it’s because she was the one who formally introduced me to the magical world of reading. And writing, too, although that world was one I detested early on. Under her instruction, her tuition, the letters of the alphabet came alive to me. I guess one never forgets the person who opened the door to such a place as that.

I listened as Rachel talked. And the memories from long ago washed over me like a flood. And I heard Magdalena Eicher’s voice and saw her smile again, in that old one-room schoolhouse that was torn down years ago. Yes, I said to Rachel. Yes, I will call her. I’m not sure what I’ll say, but I will call her. Text me the number. And we hung up and Rachel did.

And I stood there and looked at the number. There it was. Right there, I could call. I don’t know. Should I? I mean, I had not seen or spoken to Magdalena Eicher for probably forty-five years or so. Not long after she taught me in second grade, she moved to northern Indiana and taught school there for years. And later, well, later she lived a hard life. Endured a lot, that much I knew. She married a real plain man from a remote little community in Missouri, and he dragged her off to live with him there. His name is not worth telling. He turned out to be mentally unhinged. He did not respect his wife, or much care for her at all. An Amish woman in a position like that doesn’t have many options. She saw hard things, and she lived through many hard days that turned into hard years. They had two children, she and her deranged husband. A daughter, then a son. Her children brought her the only joy she saw in all the remaining years of her life.

And now, now she was lying in a hospital room with a defective heart for which there was no cure. I walked out through the warehouse, then out into the sunlight. And then I called her number.

She answered. Her voice sounded exactly the same as it did all those years ago. I was a child again, in her classroom. Except I wasn’t. Hello, Magdalena, I said, half stammering. My sister Rachel told me you’re in the hospital. And before I could say my name, she told me. “You sound like a Wagler. Is this Joseph?” No, I’m not Joseph, although I’m sure he’ll call you, too, I said. This is Ira. She didn’t hesitate. And her voice sounded pleased. “Ira? Oh, I remember you.” You were my teacher in first and second grade, I said. I’ve always remembered those days. I just wanted to call and wish you well.

“I remember all my pupils from those early years of teaching,” she said. “You were all always special to me.” And we chatted a bit about those old days. And then I asked about her heart, and told her a little bit about my own. I was in pretty bad shape with A-Fib. I almost didn’t make it. But I’m feeling pretty good, now. And after a few minutes, there wasn’t a whole lot more to say. I have to go, now, I told her. I wish you every blessing. She thanked me for calling, and it sounded like she meant it. And then we hung up.

A few weeks after that, I walked into The Heart Group one morning for my 30-day checkup after my heart ablation. The nurses checked me in. All vital signs were optimal. Heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen. Dr. B came bounding into the room a short while later. “Ira,” he said. “You are looking good. And you heart is back to 110%. You really have made remarkable progress.” And he went on. “I never knew you were a NY Times bestselling author. They were talking about it while you were on the operating table. I asked what in the world they’re saying. And they told me. I usually do a little research on my patients I’m operating on. I completely missed that about you.”

I laughed. Yeah, I don’t go around telling people I’m a writer, I said. That’s beautiful, what you said about my heart. Now let’s talk about some of these drugs I’m on. I’d like to get off all the drugs I can. I’m not gonna fight you. But I want to get off.

I was on four drugs at that time. And I knew he planned to take me off the most toxic one. Which he did. Now, what about the other three? I asked. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Most doctors would keep you on those remaining three for the rest of your life. But I’ll tell you what. Come back in three months, and we’ll talk about it. We’ll see.”

I appreciate that, Doctor, I said as we shook hands. Like I said, I’m not gonna fight you. I’ll be back in three months. And tell you what. I’ll drop a signed copy of my book out front for you on my way out. He smiled at me. “I really appreciate that. Thank you,” he said. And that’s what I did.

A month or two passed. I don’t have the exact time line, here. The exact dates of what happened when. Those don’t really matter, not when you’re telling a story. You get bogged down with the details of stuff that’s not important. You have to feel it, to get it told right. And then, one day, another text from Rachel. My sister always knows what’s going on. The text was pretty simple. Magdalena Eicher is very low, not expected to live long. Not even days. And I thought about what I knew. Her sorrow stayed with her right through to the end. Her husband made no effort to care for her, so her nephew and his family took her in. She stayed in a little trailer by the side of their house. There, they loved her and cared for her. That’s what family is for, I guess. And I’m not judging anyone, here. Just telling it like it was.

Her siblings and some childhood friends made the trek to the remote little Missouri community to say good-bye. She could only sit comfortably in a chair. And there she remained, until a few days after Rachel’s message. Early one morning, then, she quietly slipped away.

And no one outside her immediate family will long remember her name or who she was. Just an obscure old Amish woman out there in the middle of nowhere. She passed away, and was mourned by her children. And she was buried with very little fuss or honor from others.

But here, I remember her, and I speak her name.

Magdalena Eicher, you were brave and strong and resolute in the face of so much sorrow and grief and pain in your life. I salute you. May you rest in peace.

I felt a little nervous the day after I got back from my little road trip to see Dad a few weeks back. I had a doctor’s appointment first thing the next morning, a Monday. Dr. B was going to see me, check me out. The week before, I had been hooked up to a Holter monitor for a day, a little electronic thingy that recorded every beat of my heart for twenty-four hours. So that was done. Still, I fidgeted a bit. Who knows what my heart does at night when I’m sleeping? And that morning, I was real tired from the drive home the day before. Stay calm, heart, I told myself as I drove over to The Heart Group.

I was plenty early. I sat and waited and watched all the other heart patients come and go. Wow. Some of them looked like they were having a pretty rough time. The nurse finally stuck her head out and called my name. I got up and followed her. It’s getting to be almost routine with me, such a thing. She took my blood pressure and heart rate. Absolutely optimal. I’m a little overweight, though. No one grumbles much about that. She took me off to another room and left. And a few minutes later, Dr. B came bounding in. I swear, the man doesn’t walk. He bounds.

It went about like before. My heart was back to 110%. Dr. B even said, “It couldn’t be in better shape if we wanted it to be.” Wow, I said. That’s great news. Now, let’s talk about some of these drugs I’m on.

He laughed. “Yeah, I remember you asking about that before,” he said. Look, I said. If my heart’s back the way you say it is, why can’t you take me off some of these drugs? Like the blood thinner? He agreed. He’d take me off the Eliquis. And he told me again. “Ninety percent of doctors would leave you on the other two drugs.” And I told him again. Look. I’m not gonna fight you. But I got three cards on the table. Three drugs. You dealt me one card. Now how many more will you deal?

I think my willingness to talk about it and not fight is what swung the man. We chatted for a while about the Lisinopril. I don’t need my blood pressure regulated, I said. “OK,” he said. “I’ll take you off that one, too. I’m leaving you on the third one, though. I’m thinking you’ll be on Metoprolol for, well, for the duration.” I didn’t flinch. I thanked the man. I’m not fighting you. I’m happy you took me off two drugs. When can we talk again, about the third one? He chuckled. “You’re a pretty good persuader,” he said. “Come back and see me in six months.

I will, I said. We shook hands. And I floated from that place on fluffy white clouds drifting gently under bright blue skies.

And that should be about it for this blog, seems like. Except it’s not. One more little trail to go down, then I’ll be done. Or maybe it’ll be a big trail. I walked out of that doctor’s office with a deeply grateful heart. Walked into life and living, and all that such a thing was. It seemed so strange. It’s all so unpredictable. One day you’re almost dead, and the next day you aren’t. And then you reach out and touch death in the face again. And you go or stay. That’s how things were. Life, just walking along, making plans for the summer, and my garage party. When you live with real gratitude in your heart, all of life seems like a dreamy dance. At least for a little while it does, anyway.

Then last week, at almost exactly this time, here comes a text from an old friend. Gloria. I hadn’t heard from her in a while. And I sensed instantly from her question that something wasn’t right. “Have you heard from Freiman or Tim?” And I texted back. No, I haven’t heard from anyone. What’s wrong?

Her return text was terse and simple. “Linda is leaving us.” And I groaned aloud and then we spoke to each other briefly on the phone, Gloria and me. Linda Beiler was back in the hospital, and fading fast. This time, she wasn’t going to make it. That’s what Gloria told me. I’d heard it before, in the past few years. She’s back in the hospital. And every time, she returned. This time, the feeling swept through me like a cold fog and I knew what Gloria was telling me was true. This time, Linda wasn’t coming back. This time, this time, well, we all knew that one of these times would be the last. Always before, it was just not this time.

It took some soaking in. In my heart and mind, it took some soaking in to really grasp what I had just heard.

Linda Beiler. She was so much to so many. I almost shudder, to even open the door to talking about who she was to me. Except, it’s like the Tyndale people told me. Your story is your story. And the people in it are a part of that story. You can tell of them, from what you saw, and how you knew them.

I don’t remember when or where or how I first met Linda. It was back in the 90s, I think, at some artsy event or other. I don’t recall when I first laid eyes on her. I never was a part of Linda’s inner circle. And if I ever was in her village, I was way out there on the edge of things. I’m an introvert. I don’t like the city or noise or large crowds. So we connected very sporadically, over the years. But when we did, well, that’s what I want to tell you about.

Things are foggy, about when we first made a real connection. We saw each other here and there. After my marriage blew up, and I started writing, we met now and then, mostly through my good friend and one of her closest friends, Freiman.

And somehow, when I launched my first garage party, I invited her. Oh, yes, she bubbled. She’d love to come. I was probably a little suspicious. People tell you they’ll be there all the time, about things like that, when they have no intention of showing up. I didn’t need to fret about Linda, though. She arrived, back at that first party, lugging in some sort of delicious dish or other. Tomato pie, I think it was. She knew most of the other guests, and the ones she didn’t know soon weren’t strangers. And I have a small surge of pride, here. That night, the first time Linda was at my garage party, that night she learned what it was to play Hi-Lo at my bar.

I remember half keeping an eye on things, like a good host should. And I remember much shouting and confusion at the bar. I walked over after a while, to take a look. And there stood Linda, smiling and smiling. And raking in everyone’s cash, just like she had a right to it. The thing was, she smiled and laughed so brightly that all the losers smiled and laughed with her. It was a strange and wondrous thing.

And after that, I saw Linda a bit more frequently. I got invited to her little parties, and to her Sunday lunches now and then at her apartment on North Lime Street. There, I briefly met many of her friends. I saw Linda and her daughter, Sarah, together. If there ever was a mother’s love for her child, and a child’s love for her mother, that’s what I saw when I saw Linda and Sarah.

My book got published in June, 2011. Linda called me one day, soon after that, out of the blue. She had read the book, and she loved it. I blushed and said, aw, shucks, tain’t nothing. But it was something. She knew it and I knew it. And from the book, then, flowed some of my fondest memories of me and Linda, walking through a small slice of life together.

Things moved along, then. Linda came to my garage party that year, as always. That’s when we always connected, most closely. She was just so exuberant and alive and free. And she always scooped up the money from the Hi-Lo games at my bar. And she always held the fan of $20 bills high and wide, with the biggest smile you ever saw. I always tried to take a picture of me and her together, at that moment. I figured I had the right to stand with her, being the host and all.

Linda Hi-Lo

In the fall of 2011, my friend Joanna Miller King scheduled a book signing for me at her business in Shipshewana, Indiana. Joanna was an old friend I knew from way back in my Florida years. I had not seen her in decades. She wanted me to come out to Davis Mercantile and sign books at her store on a Saturday. I made plans to drive out the day before, a full day’s travel. And then Linda called me. Somehow, she had heard I was going. Turns out she and Joanna were best, best friends for years. And she asked me. “Can I ride out with you? Don’t tell Joanna. It’ll be a surprise.” Of course, I said. Of course. I’m happy to have company on a long road trip like that.

When you travel ten hours one way with someone, you either hit it off or you don’t. We talked and talked. We told our stories of who we were and where we had been and what we had seen. We told each other of our marriages, and how they blew up. She spoke of her hopes and dreams, and I spoke of mine. The hours flowed by as we rolled along the toll road, on and on, north and west.

I’m sure she thought my anarchist views were a little uncouth, but she just smiled and never let on. I’ve never seen a person who smiled so much. And a funny thing happened as we approached our destination late that afternoon.

Linda was driving. I had been grumbling pretty savagely about the toll road and how much it cost to use it. It’s highway robbery. And as we approached the toll booth to pay and get off, I told Linda. Now, these toll people work for the state. They’re robbers. I don’t want you to smile at the toll person who takes our money. I want you to look all grim. “I will,” she promised. And she deliberately pinched her lips together and tried to frown. We slowed and stopped at the booth. Linda rolled down the window and handed over our ticket, and then a wad of cash I had given her. The toll booth guy, obviously smitten by such a lovely woman handing him money, got all smarmy. “Oh, thank you,” he said, smiling at her plaintively.

And Linda just couldn’t stop herself. “No, thank you,” she said, brightly. And she shot him the most dazzling smile you could imagine as we pulled away. The poor toll booth guy looked grateful. I was horrified. Oh, Linda, I groaned, slapping my forehead. No, no. Don’t thank him. He just robbed you. And you smiled at him. You weren’t supposed to smile. Good grief, woman. And she laughed and laughed and I laughed and laughed with her.

And it was very soon after that road trip that the dark night descended. Cancer. She had cancer. I remember the sinking feeling in me when I heard the news. I waited a few days, then called her. I don’t know what to say, I told her. I’m so sorry. What do you need from me? I’m here, for whatever. And she thanked me and told me. “I know how close you walked with Paul and Anne Marie, through all those long years,” she said. “I know how draining it had to be. You don’t need to do that for me. I have a lot of family and friends who will.” Thank you, I said. I’m here, for whatever you need.

And I just kind of stayed out there on the outskirts of her village, where I had always been. We connected sporadically, but when we did, well, we had a blast. Through Facebook, I kept up with her life and how it was going. She went down low, got close to the door of death, that first round. But somehow, she bounced right back. And every August, she came to my garage party. Smiling and smiling and carrying a great plate of some kind of food or other. After dinner, when things had settled a bit, she always rounded up her willing victims at the bar. And there she skinned everyone in Hi-Lo. And it got to where everyone knew. If you play at my bar, Linda is going to walk away with a bunch of your money. People flocked to my bar, anyway.

And every year, she told me as she was leaving. “Thank you so much. I will be back next year. Let me know.” Oh, I will, I always said, as we hugged.

And I’m not sure what year it was, 2013, maybe. I had been contacted by a group in a retirement home in Mechanicsburg. We had scheduled a book talk one Friday afternoon. After that, I planned to head on down to see my friends, Dominic and Jamie Haskin in West Virginia. Linda and Jamie had hit it off pretty well when they met at my garage party, so I called Linda. I’m heading out for a book talk, then down to West Virginia. Would you like to go along? Would she? Of course she would. And so it was set, our second and last road trip together.

She showed up that morning in her convertible. She had bought it not long before, after her first bout with cancer. And she offered to drive. I agreed, of course. I mean, who could turn down such a thing? I threw in my bag, and we were off. It was just a perfect, beautiful sunny day. We passed around Harrisburg and headed south on the Interstate. Linda cruised along at well over seventy, top down, radio blasting. I recognized the moment as the rare and beautiful thing it was. And I reveled in it.

linda beiler

And after that, life just kind of flowed on. A few years ago, she called and asked if I could bring Big Blue to help move some of her stuff from her Lime Street place to Hollinger House, the great, grand old inn she remodeled and opened over in Willow Street. Of course I could, and did. Later, I attended the grand opening of the inn and gave her half a dozen signed copies of my book, so she could gift or sell them to her guests.

I’m not sure when the last time was I saw her. I think it may have been at my garage party last August. I guess it doesn’t matter much. A few months ago, I messaged out my invitations for this year. August 27th. Ira’s Great Annual Garage Party. Come if you can. Linda messaged right back. “I can’t wait. Bring your quarters!” The last three or four years, when I invited her and she came, I thought quietly to myself that this time will likely be the last time. It never was. This year, such a thought never crossed my mind. I had no doubt at all that Linda would be there.

I stood there after Gloria and I had hung up. So this was it. The end of a long, hard road. And the realization settled in, deep inside me. So much of life is a battlefield. You don’t choose your battles. You take them as they come. But you can sure choose how you fight them. Linda was a warrior. She lived intensely. She fought with grace and courage and joy and great anticipation of good things to come.

But mostly, she lived and fought without fear.

We waited, those in her village, for the final news. We knew that this time it would come. She slipped lower and lower. And last Sunday evening, as the sun sank into the fiery hues of the western sky, the great warrior laid down her sword. And now, the battlefield stands, empty and quiet. And now, she rests.

Linda Sue Beiler, you were my friend. It seems so surreal that you’re actually gone. It was an honor to know you. One day, when I get to where you are, we’ll head out together on another road trip again. And this time I won’t scold you when you smile at the toll keeper. Because the passage to where we’re going will be free.

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(16 Comments) »

  1. Beautifully expressed! I love your tribute to your childhood teacher. Also the sweetness of Linda B. She was a beautiful lady. My favorite line is your last sentence. Because the passage to where we’re going is free….that is good news!

    Comment by Gigi Williams — July 8, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

  2. Love it. As always, very thought provoking and poetically written. It’s wonderful that those ladies are remembered in such beautiful words.

    Comment by Robin — July 8, 2016 @ 7:59 pm

  3. Beautiful remembrances. I absolutely love the last sentence, it brought tears. It’s free indeed, for us.

    Comment by Brynda — July 8, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

  4. I never knew the hard life Magdalena lived and had no escape, no escape until death.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — July 8, 2016 @ 9:44 pm

  5. I read your writings and finish in silence. What the writings bring forth can only be felt. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Clara Mae Stutzman — July 8, 2016 @ 11:34 pm

  6. Well expressed. These good & solid relationships when we where younger that we thought would last forever seem to come to end far to soon. Appreciate how you shared from the everyday & how & why they were memorable to you.

    Comment by p klassen — July 9, 2016 @ 1:47 am

  7. No words other than heartrending.

    Comment by Deb — July 9, 2016 @ 11:08 am

  8. Ira, you are greatly blessed and you are also a great blessing, thank you.

    Comment by Georgia — July 9, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

  9. Beautiful tributes to two important people in your life. I am sorry for your loss.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — July 9, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

  10. Beautiful, magnificent and full of love ! Such a lovely tribute …. The last sentence: such Good News!

    Comment by Patricia — July 9, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

  11. You always make me smile or cry with your writing but this time both. Thank you for sharing your memories. Thoughts and prayers with you.

    Comment by Erin — July 9, 2016 @ 4:01 pm

  12. I’m sure both women are pleased with your lovely remembrance. Bittersweet, life is. Sorry for your loss.

    Comment by lisa — July 9, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

  13. Beautifully written. Linda will be missed so much.

    Comment by Bernadette — July 10, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

  14. Loved these stories. Although her marriage was unhappy, I hope that joy came to Magdalena in other ways. Linda sounds like one of those people whose happiness rubbed off on those around her.

    I hope Captcha Code behaves today. The last few times I tried to tell you how much I liked what you had written, Captcha Code was uncooperative.

    Comment by Cynthia Chase — July 10, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

  15. Really touched my heart. Hope all goes well for you.
    God Bless.

    Comment by Linda Morris — July 10, 2016 @ 10:34 pm

  16. Got a text a couple of days ago.”well old buddy,they think it has returned”it said and I got that sick feeling.A couple of years ago while he and his wife were living out here, he had a serious bout with cancer.Went to see him a lot at the hospital close to my house and then the rehab center afterwards.They moved back to my home state to be close to family and he made a good recovery.Now he says they told him it’s not good and chemo is the only alternative.We used to drink a lot of coffee and smoked some good cigars as we talked about the fellowship both of us have been in for many years.Every thing has a beginning,a middle and an end and many times that end seems to come way too soon.Thanks for the poignant story about life and loss and for giving some of us a place to express ourselves…Peace to all..

    Comment by lenny — July 20, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

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