Thursday, June 7, 2012

Of Life, Ducks and Love

Life has changed dramatically for my friend John Breiner since his catastrophic head injury in a fall four years ago. He walks with difficulty, with the support of a walker. He can no longer drive. And the damage to his brain is progressive. Despite his yearnings for life to be the same as it was before, he is increasingly dependent on Mary, his wife of 27 years, and one of my dearest friends for the past 40 years.

                                         Mary and John Breiner - May 15, 2012

In the past year, I've flown over to their L.A. area home every few months to spend time with them, thoroughly enjoying their company.  When I visited in February, the changes in John were unsettling. This bright, accomplished man seemed to be slipping away -- though his kind, sweet personality was still a constant.

There was reason for celebration during my last visit a few weeks ago: a new medication regimen had brought wonderful benefits. He was back, reading the daily papers with great interest, engaging in lively conversation and rediscovering his passion for mystery novels.

"Now you and Mary talk and visit tonight and don't worry about me," he said at one point, settling into his favorite reading chair with a fat Dick Francis novel. "I'm going to read this cover to cover tonight so you can just enjoy each other."

Mary and I smiled at him and each other -- delighted to have time together, even more delighted to see John being so much himself once again.

And yet, life is forever changed for this man who once headed the international division of a major corporation, traveling the world. These days, his health is too frail even to travel to Denver for his grandson's middle school graduation. His world has become their cozy, comfortable beach condo with its view of a small stream populated with a wonderful variety of waterfowl and the sandy dunes and ocean beyond, with frothy breaking waves.

                                  Ocean view from Mary and John's Condo Balcony

                                      Creek view from Mary and John's Condo Balcony

                                            Some duck "neighbors" swimming in the creek                                     

His memory does not always embrace short-term events, but the long-term memories, the events that have mattered most in his life are still vivid.

One early evening,  as John and I sat on the balcony, watching the sun set over the ocean and listening to the sound of the surf, he told me -- once again -- the story of the love in his life. He talked about the tragic loss of his beloved first wife, who died of lung cancer, when their youngest child Katie was less than a year old. He told me how his mother had come from Philadelphia to Los Angeles for three years to help care for the children and then how, in subsequent years, several nannies cared for them when his job took him to distant places.

And then Mary, an ex-nun and psychotherapist who worked in Personnel/Employee Assistance for his corporation and who came to his department to mediate some employee differences, came into his life. "I hadn't been dating or even looking for another person to love," he told me, gazing thoughtfully into his glass of red wine. "My life was my children and my work. There wasn't room for anyone else....until Mary."

They married when she was in her early forties and he was a decade older. His son Matthew and daughter Liz were in college at the time. Katie was 10. The children loved Mary from the beginning and stood at the altar with John and Mary at the wedding, Katie wiping tears of joy and snuggling up to Mary as she said her vows.

The kids are all grown now with spouses and children and lives of their own. There have been times, John told me, when one or another of the adult children has grumbled about how much time he spent at work and on the road when they were growing up.  "We all love each other dearly, of course," he said. "But when I was a single parent in a demanding job that required frequent travel, it was hard on all of us, especially the kids. But they have only love for Mary...only do I. What a blessing she is. What a gift it love and to feel so loved."

And I sat there thinking, with gratitude, that, as his memories fade, the ones that still stand out for him are ones of love and connection.

"There is love all around," John said suddenly, interrupting my reverie. He pointed to the creek just below the balcony.  There was a large goose -- a gander -- curled up with a small white duck on the creekside.

John told me that this gander lost its mate and has since adopted the little duck as his constant, loyal companion. He added that he had become very interested in these waterfowl and their habits and has checked out library books to learn more about varieties of ducks and geese.

"Those ducks and geese have become neighbors and friends to me," he said. "It's so interesting to see how they interact with each other. I guess it's another instance of love being where you find it."

Smiling, I told him about my favorite childhood pet: Hughey, a white Peking duck whom my father bought (along with two other ducklings -- Dewey and Louie, of course) at a local farmer's market one Easter. I loved all three, but Hughey was my favorite, the love of my childhood. He let me rub my face in the soft down under his wings and carry him around like a baby. He was gentle. He followed me around like a sweet puppy. He kept the other two ducks from chasing and biting us by holding them back, catching the area between their wings in his beak. My father called him "The Little Gentleman."

Our Easter ducks survived for some years. When they were about five years old, Dewey got caught under the wheels of my mother's car as she was backing out of the driveway one rainy night. (Our father dubbed her car "The Duck Press", a name that stuck, to her chagrin, for years to come.) About a year later, Louie was killed by a predator. Hughey survived for some time after that, continuing to bring joy to my life, until a coyote tore him apart one awful night -- breaking my heart as well.

I suddenly remembered that I had a picture of myself and Hughey in my briefcase. My brother Mike, whom I was going to visit later in the week, had asked me to bring family pictures to scan for an online scrapbook for his children to enjoy in the future.

                                      My beloved duck Hughey and me in 1952                  

John studied the picture for a long time. "You sure did love that duck," he said at last.

"I sure did."

"And I love this picture," he said.

He asked to see it many more times, the last time when I was preparing to leave and he wanted to show it to his respite caregiver Jesse.

Mary and I shared delight in the fact that he was showing such improvement in short-term memory: he kept remembering and asking for that picture.

Several days later, I emailed a scanned copy of the picture to Mary -- who replied that she had printed it out on glossy photo paper and was taping it to the mirror of their bedroom dresser so that it would be the first thing John would see when he awoke that morning.

And I thought of the lesson I had learned from that dear man during our time on the balcony, watching the ducks, the goose and the ocean waves.

He taught me the importance of living in the moment, of savoring the sights and the sounds of life happening around us. No matter how much he has lost of his former life, his keen awareness of what matters, of life happening in the here and now endures.

And it struck me that, with even with age and growing disability, we still can find delight in small but significant things. We find love and warmth and reassurance in unanticipated ways, at unexpected times.

We can find it in memories of love and loss and reconnection. We can find it remembering how our long relationships began and how they have endured through so many years and challenges, shared joys and sorrows.

We can find it in the continuity of life as our children and grandchildren grow and thrive.

We can find it by paying attention to life around us, like watching ducks (and a lone goose) swim languidly in the creek and, as daylight fades, cuddle together on the mossy bank.

And we can find it in the memories and faded photos of people and pets we loved so much in our distant childhoods -- long-ago connections that so enriched our early lives and that still bring a smile to our lips and joy to our hearts.

When all other memories, all titles and prestige and perks and all the other trappings of the work world that once seemed so important, have vanished from our lives, what we remember most is that we have loved and been loved. 


  1. My internet connection is not cooperating. I just lost my first comment. Let's try again.

    I loved this piece, very thoughtful. A good reminder to cherish the people in my life. I also enjoyed the picture of you and your duck. Reminded me of the chicken I had as a child...hummm, I should write about that. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Bravo! Yes! I've got a big lump in my throat at the beauty of this. Despite what we may lose physically and mentally, as long as we have love, we still have everything, don't we?

  3. I just love that picture of you and your duck. The love between you is so evident.
    That new drug seem to be a miracle worker and I am so happy for your friend that she has most of her husband back.
    Sometimes when our world becomes smaller due to illness, we become aware the small beautiful things that would go unnoticed before. And that is a good thing.

  4. What a beautiful post, Kathy. As usual with your writing there are many levels to think about. John sounds like an extraordinary man who nourishes his life and is rewarded by it. But no less extraordinary that you, who captures so well the many different dimensions of life and the people we love.

  5. Thanks be to God for new drugs coming out to help those who need them. I've heard good things about Aricept... So glad it is helping John... Sounds like a wonderful visit. I'm sure that Mary also appreciates your visits, Kathy.

    Love is all around us... I didn't know that for many years (during my first marriage and after my divorce). BUT--once I met George, I found a love which I had never experienced. Our love just grows each day.

    Thanks for sharing about your special and loving friends.
    Hugs and Loads of LOVE,

  6. Dear kathy, I read this post with tears in my eyes. I had never thought of an Alzheimer's drug for one with a head injury but of course! It makes perfect sense.

    There is such powerful love in this post. Clearly the love this couple shares, and that of the children for Mary as well. The love of beauty and nature and savoring and studying what is near and beautiful. And the love you have for your friends, to be with them, so share, to listen, and to love in turn. Oh, Kathy -- this post is so FULL. Full of friendship and caring and concern. But mostly full of love.

  7. Oh, you do write so beautifully, Kathy, and this is a lovely, gentle, reassuring post. I love the photo of you with your huge duck cuddled in your arms. :-) Knowing the value and significance of little things is the key to contentment, whatever our age.

  8. What a lovely poignant post. Those memories are really something.