Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dust of the Stars: Part 2

First Flight

My stepbrother and I sitting on the balloon bag. Photo by Mom.

My first flight was circa 1985, slung beneath a hot air balloon shaped like a giant beer bottle. My stepfather was the beer and wine buyer for a major drug store chain in Michigan (which no longer exists, but Michiganders might recognize the logo on my tee shirt). Through his connections, we met with the Labatts "Flying Blue Crew" at a dawn balloon rally.

Our balloon during inflation. Photo by Mom.

Somehow, Mom and I were encouraged to go up in the balloon while my stepfather and stepbrother remained on the ground. To this day, I am surprised by that expression of uncharacteristic generosity. Still, the experience was a formative one in my life.

Our unusual shadow cast below. Photo by Mom.

Initially, I balked at the opportunity because I was afraid of heights (full disclosure, I still am). But the sides of the basket were tall and the risk of my tumbling out was minuscule. With trepidation, I climbed aboard with Mom and watched in awe as we floated away from the ground. With no sensation of movement, it was as though the ground was actually falling away from us.

Me peering over the edge of the basket on my first trip into the sky. Photo by Mom.

I was enchanted by the view and wished that the flight had gone on much longer. It is difficult to say how much childhood experiences influence our later behavior, but this adventure with Mom very likely played a critical role in the path I followed.

The Last Frontier

Kristy, The Bear, and me on Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska. July 7, 2018

Alaska is a difficult place to describe succinctly. Its wonders seem to be painted on a grander canvas than other places I have visited. Even while standing on one, the enormity of a glacier is difficult to conceive. We visited multiple glaciers, each one unique and amazing in its own right. We had a wonderful adventure exploring parts of Alaska by ship, seaplane, train, bicycle, kayak, and helicopter.

Thursday, July 12, was our last full day in Alaska. Late that night, we received word that Mom had entered in-home hospice. If Mom anticipated this drastic decline before we departed to Alaska, she withheld that information. Downplaying the urgency of her condition so that we could enjoy our vacation would have been very much in character for her.

Friday evening, we departed Anchorage for Chicago on a flying Greyhound, spending six hours overnight wedged into seats apparently sized for children. We arrived in Chicago shortly after dawn and a second hop to Rochester delivered us home in the early afternoon on Saturday, July 14. We leapt forward four hours during the combined flights and, having effectively been awake for two days straight (I have yet to be able to sleep on an airliner), we stayed active until our usual bedtime. Sleep that night performed a hard reset on our internal circadian clocks; it works every time.

More Than Words

Saturday night, I explained to The Bear why we were flying to Michigan the next morning to see Grandma. I explained that Grandma was sick and that it might be our last chance to see her. The Bear accepted this information with grave stoicism. "Do you understand?" I asked her. She nodded, but I had my doubts.

The Bear, Mom, and me. June 7, 2015.

The next morning, any concerns that I had about The Bear's understanding were erased. When she appeared downstairs, dressed and ready to fly, she wore a small bear pendant on a chain. It had been a present from Mom several years before. Without uttering a word, The Bear managed to precisely communicate her understanding. In that moment, I was overcome with love and pride for my little girl.

I considered many different scenarios for a visit, but the one that made the most sense to me was a day trip in the Warrior for all three of us. After returning my family home that evening, I would make solo trips to Michigan as warranted. I had no desire for The Bear to stay in Michigan to watch her grandmother fade away.

So it was that, less than 24 hours after returning home from Alaska, we were aloft in the Warrior and flying due west.

Unexpected VIPs

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
15 Jul 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC 5.6 1812.1

When Scott parked us at Michigan Aviation, I asked if we could borrow a car. He offered us the same compact Buick SUV that The Bear and I used on our prior visit. We secured the Warrior and departed in the Buick, waving to Scott and his supervisor on our way through the vehicle gate.

Scott later told me that his supervisor asked, "Who was that?"

"That was Chris and his family," Scott told him, as though this information was obvious and important. "They come here all the time."


I was shocked by Mom's appearance. Exactly two weeks had passed since The Bear and I visited her in the hospital and her decline was substantial. She had not been eating for the better part of a week and had experienced obvious weight loss. She was ambulatory, but unsteady. Communicative, but easily confused.

The Bear climbed into an easy chair with Mom and babbled happily at her about Alaska. It was clear that Mom was not able to completely process The Bear's rapid fire travelogue, but she was happily content to listen to the sound of her only granddaughter's voice and to enjoy her presence.

The previous week, when she was released from the hospital and into hospice care, Mom made firm demands. She wanted to die in her own home. Her friends -- Annette, Shelly, Kathy, and Leslie -- gathered together to see it done. They worked together to ensure that someone was at the house 24/7. We should all have such good friends.

Partway through our visit, Mom apologized and indicated that she needed to take a nap. I helped her to her bedroom and into bed, where she fell asleep almost immediately. We remained at the house until her nap was over so that we could say goodbye.

When it was time for us to go, Mom hugged each one of us while whispering something individually special and important into our ears. As one of Mom's friends later observed, it was a beautiful goodbye.

Kristy and The Bear never saw her again.

Deviating around a small thunderstorm over Canada on the return flight.

Token Appearance

I returned to work on Monday, July 16. I did some light maintenance on several of my projects, blanched at the obscene amount of email accumulated in my inbox, and generally tried to touch base with everyone after two weeks out of the office.

That afternoon, I spoke with Heather, Mom's hospice nurse. Heather was a seasoned hospice veteran who capably shared her expertise both firmly and compassionately. "Coming back sooner would be better than later," she advised. "Your mom has not been eating and she is beginning to hallucinate. She is on a path."

"I'll be there tomorrow," I responded, making a snap decision.

"I think that's a good choice," she affirmed.

I spent the remainder of the day preparing for another extended absence at work.

Rocky Road

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
17 Jul 2018N21481SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI)3.11815.2

If airplanes wore paths through the air as readily as feet do through a meadow, I would have had a visible trail to follow. Solo in the Warrior, it was my tenth flight of the year through Canadian airspace between Oakland County and Sodus. I imagined paralleling the ghostly imprints of past wakes in the sky.

Niagara Falls International Airport (KIAG), where my Garmin G5 was installed in January.

Everything around me was rendered in jaw-dropping high definition through an unusually clear atmosphere. It was fortunate that there was such a magnificent view to enjoy because a headwind lengthened the flight significantly and the air was so rough that I was reminded of riding a mountain bike over a bed of rocks. My shoulders physically ached at the end of the flight.

Through the clear air, I noticed details that I had missed on past flights. For example, as I flew over the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Station Reservoir near Niagara Falls, I noticed that several roads continued beneath the surface of the water. I wondered if they existed before the reservoir was created and what other lost bits of civilization might lay hidden below.

Locks in the Welland Canal connecting Lake Ontario to Lake Erie

I landed the Warrior smoothly at Oakland County with a 17 knot direct crosswind component (yes, I calculated it) and taxied to Michigan Aviation, exhausted from the long, rough ride.

Scott's supervisor from the previous visit met me at the airplane. "You've been in here before, right?"

I nodded wearily. "I knew it!" he said, gesticulating animatedly with both hands. "I recognized the bird. Anything you need, just let me know." I asked him to top-off the fuel and explained that I would be staying for a few days, but that I did not know exactly how long.

"Great! Anything else we can do for you, just let us know!" I was puzzled by the enthusiastic welcome. Sure, I always bought fuel. But I was hardly a big spender, especially compared to owners of the Cirrus, King Air, and private jet aircraft usually parked on the Michigan Aviation ramp next to my humble Warrior.

Human Connections in Crisis

Kathy drove me from the airport to Mom's house and I was very pleased to see her. She has been friends with Mom since the early 1980s and I have known her since I was a kid. Her familiar face in a time of trial was very comforting.

During my stay, I connected with many wonderful people who came to my mother's aid. Annette was Mom's closest friend at work and had steadfastly supported Mom through every step of the ordeal. For her, 2018 must have played like an unwelcome sequel. She lost her sister to pancreatic cancer in 2017. Knowing that she was reliving the experience with Mom so soon after the passing of her sister, my heart broke for her. Nonetheless, she was stalwart in her support. Shelly and Leslie knew Mom through the church choir. The four women negotiated a rotating schedule to ensure that Mom was never alone in the house, day or night. They were directly responsible for the success of Mom's in-home hospice care. Additionally, Tom stepped in to pay the bills. Wayne, Mom's friend and insurance agent, handled some of the paperwork. Laura, the pastor's wife, supported the volunteers with occasional meals, including feeding me a quick snack of kiwi in-between appointments with the lawyer and the bank. The little moment with the kiwi stands as a crisp, colorful memory in a week that I otherwise recall as a blur of hazy images.

I was also fortunate to connect with Mom's pastor and neighbor, Rick. Though I was not a member of Rick's flock, I benefited greatly from his knowledge, experience, and kindness. "Have you thought about which funeral home you want to use?" He asked this as we talked in his office at the church. My face must have gone ashen. "I know that it seems ghoulish to think about today, but someday soon, you will need an answer to that question."

I was awed by the community of people that spontaneously formed to shield my mother from the chaos. The sincere kindness and generosity of these wonderful people during such a trial have given my faith in humanity a much-needed boost.

Doggie HIPAA?

Mom was visibly less energetic than she had been two days previous. Not long after I arrived on Tuesday, I set-up a Facetime session between her and The Bear. The manic, moving image of her granddaughter brought a wan smile to Mom's face. With so much assistance available to her, I busied myself with activities that only I could manage, mostly financial and legal matters.

Kayla, Dougall, and Tia (l-r) with Maggie just out of frame at the top. Photo by Judy.

Though she was the focal point in the household, Mom was not the only one there requiring care. Her four Cairn terriers, Kayla (short for McKayla), Maggie, Dougall (short for MacDougall), and Tia were also completely dependent on others. Not only were they not receiving the full attention that they deserved, but they were also a distraction to those acting as hospice caregivers. These dogs meant the world to Mom, but now they were penned up in the back of the house to keep them out from underfoot. They had no access to her and they deserved better.

Mom was active with the Colonel Potter Cairn Rescue Network and all four dogs were rescues that she had adopted. I reached out to Colonel Potter and the organization responded immediately to my cry for help.

"We will take care of them," assured my contact Pam. I just needed to provide information on each dog (name, type of food, feeding schedule and amounts, medications, etc.), obtain "mugshots" for everyone, sign surrender paperwork, and facilitate communication between Colonel Potter and the veterinarian's office. Although getting each dog to look at the camera for a portrait was more difficult than I expected, the biggest challenge was connecting the rescue organization to the dog's vet. I needed to wield my power of attorney before the vet would agree to share the dogs' medical history with Colonel Potter.

Does HIPAA apply to dogs, now?

Pam assured me that Colonel Potter was working swiftly to find homes for the dogs and that they would contact me within days about a pick-up.


I was staying at a high school friend's house 20 minutes away, commuting back and forth to Mom's house in her Subaru. Often, I awoke confused. Where am I? What day is it? At Mom's, the march of time seemed to accelerate and her decline steepened. By Wednesday, she was no longer ambulatory and in tremendous pain. She sometimes wore a grimace that persisted even while she slept.

"She's not comfortable," stated Heather. "We can increase her pain medication, but that means she will spend even less time conscious," Heather advised. I called close family members to let them know that, if they wanted to see her and talk with her one last time, that they should come that day. Some came. Some didn't. We all deal with grief differently.

By Thursday, July 19, Mom was almost completely non-responsive. Part of this was due to the increase in pain medication dosage, a hard bargain made in exchange for bringing peace to her countenance. We ordered a hospital bed because managing her in her own bed became too challenging. She would not have liked that, but we were faced with limitations in physical strength and geometry that we could not overcome.

I found myself in an uncomfortable situation. Mom only slept; there was no interaction with her. Mom's friends were primarily providing her care. I had done all that I could on the legal, financial, and dog adoption fronts. I was weary from living out of a suitcase for three weeks in a row and began to dwell on those things at home needing attention. But how could I possibly consider leaving?

Astutely observing my conundrum, Rick inserted himself. "Dying is work. Right now, it is your mother's work to do. No one else can do it for her," he explained, holding my gaze. "You need to give yourself permission to do what you have to do. You've been here supporting your mom and she knows it. That's what's most important. You also have a life and a family in New York that require your attention. Go. Come back when you can. If she passes before you return, do not punish yourself."

Over the course of the afternoon, Rick's advice took root and I decided to return home that evening. Mom had a brief moment of consciousness in the late afternoon and I was able to coax her to drink some water through a straw for the first time that day. Kneeling at the side of the hospital bed now dominating the living room, I told her a funny story and earned a familiar smile and a ghost of her distinctive chuckle. It was good to know that she was still in there. I told her that I loved her and that I would return soon. She was already asleep by the time I left the house.

By all accounts, that was the last two way interaction that anyone had with her.

Going Direct

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
19 Jul 2018N21481PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Sodus, NY)2.71817.9

It was soothing to be back in control of the Warrior, to be back in control of something. On the climb-out from Oakland County, the Detroit Departure controller queried about ADRIE. "I'm not familiar with ADRIE. What's the on-course heading to your destination?"

"Zero eight eight, Cherokee Four Eight One," I responded.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, cleared direct destination." Nice! If only I could make that happen routinely by flight plan. I opened the flight plan page on the GPS, skipped the cursor over a series of intermediate waypoints to the identifier for the Williamson Sodus Airport, and pressed the [direct] button with great satisfaction.

Unlike the flight west, the return home was smooth. When I landed at dusk, I encountered Max preparing for his night cross country flight, one of his last requirements on the path to a private pilot certificate. Max was one of Kristy's high school students and was so enthralled with flight, that she connected the two of us. I took Max and his mom for a sunset flight on a beautiful October evening in 2016, the first time either of them had been aloft in a light aircraft. The experience was so positive for both that it ignited Max's interest in flying lessons and his mom became an enthusiastic supporter. As Max readied One Delta Tango for flight, I was pleased to have played a small role in the path he had chosen.

I stayed at home Friday, July 20. I mowed the lawn, paid bills, repaired the dishwasher that broke a few days before our trip to Alaska, and conducted a telephone exit interview with a New Jersey-based employee of mine that resigned while I was in Alaska. I felt particularly good about the dishwasher; the ability to fix something was immensely therapeutic.

Nonetheless, I felt myself split between two geographies. With my responsibilities in New York fulfilled, I felt the internal equilibrium tip again, and a pull toward Clarkston, MI once more.

Good News

A problematic weather forecast loomed for the coming days. Rather than flying, I spent six hours in my car on Sunday, July 22, trapped in the dense traffic of the Interstate. If only my car could have levitated free of the other cars the way the Warrior could. Fortunately, the border crossing wait times were short and the crossings themselves went smoothly.

"Reason for visit?" queried a bored customs officer in Port Huron, MI.

"Visiting Mom," I answered, hoping that he would not probe further. He didn't.

When I arrived in Clarkston, Mom was asleep in the hospital bed. It was almost as if nothing had changed since I departed three days previous.

I discovered excellent news waiting for me by email. Colonel Potter had identified homes for all four dogs. Judy from the rescue lived on a nearby farm and would host the canine quartet until transportation to their final homes could be arranged. She was willing to collect them as soon as Monday.

The Bear walking Dougall in downtown Clarkston, MI. October, 2017.

I was overjoyed, but became immediately concerned. Dougall experienced a seizure in the middle of the night the previous week and I worried that this, combined with his age and other maladies, would render him unfit for adoption. Dougall was Mom's favorite, a sweet-tempered companion. The Bear and I knew Dougall better than all the other dogs. But with his condition, would there really be a home waiting for Dougall, too? Was it even fair to ask for one?

I called Pam in a near panic. "Did you talk to the emergency vet that treated Dougall last week? Do you know about Dougall's health issues?" I realized that I was tearing-up as I explained my concerns.

"We know everything," she assured me. "Don't worry, we've talked to the vet, we understand the issues. Everyone has a home, even Dougall. They're all going to be fine."

Mom, Dougall, and The Bear on Mom's street in Clarkston. October 2017.

A New Twist on "The Dog Ate My Homework"

I was genuinely concerned about the condition of the dogs. All four were overdue for baths and grooming. "Don't worry about that," Pam instructed. "Judy will bathe them once she has them on the farm."

But that evening, when I brought the dogs inside from the back yard, I discovered that Dougall was in dire need of a bath; his hind quarters were coated with diarrhea. To his credit, he maintained his tranquil composure as I placed him into the laundry tub, set the water to an appropriate temperature, and used a short length of hose and liberal amounts of dog shampoo to clean him.

When I was certain that he was adequately clean, I removed him from the tub and placed him on a towel. I meant to dry him with a second towel and, as I reached for it, Dougall did what wet dogs do. He shook himself vigorously. That was how I discovered that my cleaning efforts were...incomplete.

It went everywhere. All over the wall, all over the nearby washer and dryer, and all over me. Kathy came to the rescue, holding Dougall over the laundry tub while I gave his hind quarters a more thorough washing. We ended the adventure with a clean dog, but everything around him (including me) was filthy. While Kathy cleaned the appliances, I emptied my pockets, changed my clothes, then laundered everything.

When the dryer buzzed, I opened the door to find one of my credit cards lying on the bottom of the drum. Then, a five dollar bill. And a ruined business card (Rick's). Though I had removed my iPhone and keys from my pockets, I had missed the wallet. Everything survived except one thing: my paper FAA Third Class Medical Certificate. While it was obvious that it had once been a medical certificate, it was completely illegible except for the expiration date. I was grounded.

As a result of this incident, I am now fully versed in the procedure to request an official copy of a medical certificate from the FAA Aeromedical Division. It went more smoothly than expected.


Monday morning, July 23, Judy arrived to collect all four dogs. After observing them for a few minutes, she looked at Dougall and said, "I might just have to keep you." Judy had a keen eye for personality. She offered that I could visit them at the farm for as long as they were still there.

That afternoon, I was alone in the house with Mom while Kathy took a phone call outside. I sat beside her hospital bed and stroked her hair. I told her about bathing Dougall the night before and about how all four dogs were on their way to good homes where they would receive the love and care that they deserved. Mom groaned and shifted in the bed. I am convinced that this was her only way to communicate that she heard me.

Perhaps she was holding on specifically to hear that news.

That evening, Annette came to check in and agreed to stay with Mom while Kathy and I walked into town for dinner at Honcho, a hip new Latin restaurant in a former Marathon gas station.

Almost finished with dinner, I received a text message from Annette at 8:33 pm.

"Come home please!"

I ran back to the house to find a distraught Annette standing before my mother's hospital bed looking frail and miserable.

"She's gone."

The Wait

I do not know how long we waited, Annette, Kathy, and I. In a fog, I made the necessary phone calls. I called Heather, who arranged to send an on-duty hospice nurse. I called my uncle so that he could inform the family. I called Kristy. I called Rick, who walked over from his house and joined us in our vigil.

I found myself sitting on the couch, studying the wood grain of the floor the way I used to as a child while being chastised. Periodically, I raised my eyes and absorbed the tableau. Mom's hospital bed was in a corner of the living room. Though she was still warm, her color was wrong. Her expression was not one that I had ever seen her make, open-mouthed as though frozen in mid-gasp. Whatever internal spark that had made her wonderful and unique had visibly fled and I was struck by the simple truth that the body across the room was no longer her.

Rick engaged me in a conversation about flying as a way of breaking the heavy silence in the room. Arrival of the hospice nurse brought a flurry of activity. An officer from the Oakland County Sheriff's Department made a brief appearance. When the nurse asked me which funeral home she should call, I already had an answer for her because Rick had warned me a week previous that I would need one. The undertakers came near midnight, stereotypically grim and somberly dressed in black button down shirts with black ties.

Sometime after midnight, I was left alone in the house.

That house has always been filled with ghosts for me, the ones that afflict my deepest childhood memories. They came for me in the night, begging attention, robbing me of sleep. The next morning, when I stumbled bleary-eyed from the bedroom, my gaze swept helplessly across the hospital bed in the corner. It was empty. For a moment, I seemed to hear the once-pervasive clicking of dog toenails on the linoleum kitchen floor. But no, that was just a mental echo. The house was empty and lifeless. That morning, I remained as the only ghost in my childhood home, a presence that did not belong.

The Day After

There is a bureaucracy around death.

It is a slow, terrible churning of artificial gears that functions entirely outside anyone's sense of natural order. While the bereaved can make limited choices at the funeral home the day after, there is little that can be done practically or legally until the wheels of bureaucracy finish devouring their grist. This was a thing that I never dreamed of learning in 2018.

With Kathy's support, I made decisions at the funeral home the next morning. The medical supply company came for their equipment that morning, removing the bed, the wheelchair, the walker, and other evidence of Mom's final struggle, returning the house to the way it looked before the diagnosis less than a month prior. With my powers of attorney now voided and the bureaucracy set to churn, there was nothing of practical value that I could do in Michigan. I locked up my mother's empty home and took to the highway late Tuesday afternoon.

I returned to work on Wednesday, July 25, embracing the opportunity to focus on something different. It was a chaotic return because I was absent for most of July. Word had spread about Mom's fate and well-meaning coworkers stopped me in the hallway. "Why are you here?" many asked. No one understood.


  1. Chris,

    My heart breaks for you and your family. Mary and I share our condolences and keep you and yours in our thoughts and prayers.