Tuesday, July 19, 2016

It's Alive!

The spring and now the summer are busily working their days down and at the midway point of the season I'm back at blogging. My professional responsibilities both in genealogy and with my church accountabilities have kept me hopping in the last several weeks. Along the way, I've gathered tons of material for a restart on this blog.

Accordingly, be watching this space!


Saturday, April 2, 2016

I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me

On the road in suburban Milwaukee, spring 1982.
As a young man, I worked for Genealogy Unlimited, a retail genealogical supplier in my hometown near Chicago. As a young teen, I imagined there must have been such shops distributed across the map, like engravers and coin shops. Fairly soon, I realized such was not the case! I was fortunate that my first job as a teen was working there, helping with packing and packaging parcels, loading and unloading the roadshow when we were displaying at regional genealogical conferences, and clerking at the register. (I was hired because I spent so much time there, the owner decided to put me to work.)

The store's owner knew that the retail sale of pedigree charts and family group sheets wasn't enough to support a business. As a result, the store copied old family photographs to make photo pedigree-sized prints, sold picture frames, instructional books, charts and census abstraction forms. The store also offered, in the early years, courses on genealogical research methods and records. 

Some of the Chicago area's best genealogists were among the instructors. Newspapers. German research. Federal census records. Cemeteries and their records. These courses and many more were offered, typically on a weekday evening for a 1- to 3-hour block, depending on content and instructor. The classroom didn't hold very many people; I seem to recall not more than 15 in a session. In other words, for a very reasonable fee, learners could get a seminar in the topic of the night, taught by very capable and enthusiastic instructors. Sadly, the courses were discontinued pretty early on because they were too time intensive for the instructors, given the fixed rate of compensation. 

That's not to say the instructors were not compensated; but the level of pay was not commensurate with the hours of preparation required to teach the courses. To prepare a one hour course or lecture involved substantial hours of advance work. In that era before PowerPoint, overhead projectors with transparency slides were the norm.

Because I was privileged to be a part of the shop's road crew--OK, I *was* the road crew--I attended meetings across Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana for a few years while still in high school. The "high season" ran for about six weeks in the autumn and approximately the same in the spring, and typically I participated in most of those weekends unless I had a speech tournament conflict in high school. We'd load the van up on Friday evening and generally take off before 6 am on Saturday to make the 8 am "doors open" notice for vendor setup. Usually we were the only ones selling, unless a nearby society was selling their published compilations and abstractions at a card table on the other side of the room.

In most cases, our display was in the rear of the largest room in use. When the lecturer presented, I sat in the book fort and listened and learned. Some of the biggest names in the genealogical lecturing realm in the late '70s and '80s were on the circuit and I learned from some of the best. By the same token, I also had the opportunity to see best practices and approaches taken by these luminaries.

Of those whom I saw through the years, I was most impressed by those who would come to the display area and introduce themselves to me--then a teenager--and welcome me to the conference and ask about what I liked or did with my own research. They reached out to try and make me feel a part of the community of researchers. None of them had to do that, and admittedly many of them did not! But the ones who did sure made a positive impact on me. 

I noted, too, that many of the kindest people were among the better lecturers, too. This is strictly from the Bureau of POOMA Statistics, but those folks whom I observed as being most engaged with their audiences during their presentations appeared by far to be more successful and competent as teachers of their topics. Others may have felt otherwise, but when I could watch the whole room from the back, and see the attendees' attitudes and general demeanor... it was clear who was most effective and who was less successful in getting their points across.

Now, I'm among the lecturers. I've tried to learn from, and remember, the lessons of many years ago. I am fortunate in that public speaking comes naturally for me, so the anxiety that some folks feel at speaking before groups doesn't generally affect me. I try to stay engaged with my audience and present material I have mastered and understand well. Without being overbearing, I also try and welcome younger learners to conferences because I've been the oddball 14-year old in a roomful of blue hairs at a seminar or conference. 

One of the best ways for us as a body to grow our field is to work at being welcoming. Yes, it takes time, but it will make a tremendous difference for someone who might be new to the field. Remember: we were all "newbies" once. Without another's welcome, we may well have wandered away from this field that can be so incredibly satisfying. 


Friday, March 18, 2016

Getting at the Original

Back in the mists of time, when I was first learning about genealogical research methods, I began doing the sorts of things that guidebooks told a researcher to do: I began asking for copies of records related to my families from the repositories or custodians whose responsibility it was to maintain the records in question. Whether it was a church, or an archive, or a clerk's office, I wrote a ton of those "may I please order a copy?" letters. In those early days, I would often receive back favorable responses, or requests for payment AFTER the record request was fulfilled.

Anthony Smith/Julia Cain marriage return, certified copy, Sangamon County, Illinois, Clerk's Office; record number 11649, certified copy dated 15 April 1980.
What I didn't know, or fully grasp, in those days was that this record was a copy-and-paste job based on the records transcribed into the ledger journal of marriage entries in the clerk's office. The original on which this copy is based is one of those enormous, tabloid-sized hardbound books that, when opened, carries entries across two distinct sheets of paper flowing from left to right. The clerk's assistant in the office had to take the ledger volume to slap on the copier and make images of the two sheets. She then cut the pages apart to excise any additional entries (even making a point of zig-zagging around the name of the officiant, whose name included four characters which descended below the baseline). Those chopped entries were then placed on the copy machine yet again to make one page, to which was appended the official certification and space for the office's embossed seal. 

For many years, I presumed that this was the only record of the marriage. 

In the late 1990s, though, the office and courthouse in Sangamon County moved a couple of blocks away into new facilities. The clerk got a larger, airier room with more space for records. While they were probably present in the earlier quarters--the mid-'60s courthouse abandoned for exclusive use of the city of Springfield--the marriage returns themselves on which the ledgers were based had not been within visual range from beyond the reception counter in the previous quarters.

A subsequent visit to the clerk's office--undertaken during the FGS conference's 2011 gathering in Springfield--revealed the files with the original returns, present in the office. The then-current clerk had also allowed for researchers to have access to the record indexes from inside the counter. (Illinois allows members of genealogical societies in the state to access their indexes, by state law.) Being inside "the fort," as it were, meant that I could see the cabinets with the records in them... not the records themselves. While there, I decided to ask for the original return, not the ledger entry, as a record copy of the marriage to see if there were any substantial differences between the copy from 30+ years earlier.

Anthony Smith/Julia Cain Marriage License & Return, File No. 11649, 20 April 1885; Sangamon County, Illinois, Clerk's Office, front image; certified copy dated 9 September 2011.
Smith/Cain Marriage License & Return, reverse image. Certified copy held by the author.

In this instance, the differences between the ledger copy and the paper return are few. Interestingly enough, the original return references my great-grandmother as "Mrs. Julia A. Cain," though she was not then, and never had been married prior to this event. (An older illegitimate child may have been reason to fudge on that fact.) As a way of confirming this ruse, her then-full name was given as "Julia Ann Cain," and her "Maiden Name, if a Widow" is shown as "Julia A Cain." Anthony's information notes that this was his second marriage; in Julia's case, though, at question 15, no entry is supplied on what number marriage this was for her--the only instance, in my experience and to my knowledge with similar records of the period in that county, where the answer is blank. 

This confirms the entry in the ledger at item 3 of the lower entry of the pair in the top illustration. Again, the entry for Julia's names include, at number 2, "Maiden Name, if a Widow," her full name--in contrast to the original return, which gave her middle initial, but not her middle name. In both individuals' entries, the "white" race of the return is abbreviated "Cau." for "caucasian" in the ledgers. Anthony's mother's name is transcribed as "Glendoun" and the original would appear to be closer to the name by which her family was known in England, "Glendennin."

Most especially, though, the original bears signatures for the bride and groom. As compared with other records signed by him, the handwriting indicates that the groom signed for himself... and for his new wife! Nowhere in the copy from the ledger is there indication of signatures; they appear only on the original return.

"Births," Anthony Smith Family Record [partial], loose manuscript folio separated from a now-missing family bible; entries dated 1882-1900; original in the possession of the author's first cousin [name and address withheld, and kept in the author's research files].
While the differences between the ledger and the return are few, there are variations present between the records. Getting at the original challenged me to think genealogically about the "facts" as presented in the record, and the facts as known after years of research into the family. This instance served as yet another reminder to examine the originals on which derivative records are based, and whenever possible to base research analysis on the original, rather than the derivative.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Birthday I Always Remember

Summer 1968.

That man, were he still alive, would be 121 today.

That boy will soon turn 52.

It was the summer of 1968. We were at my uncle's house on the near west side of Springfield. My mother's father, Ed Smith, was then 73 and seemed ancient to me. He had a bristly moustache and usually had a Dutch Masters cigar in his hand or on his lips. Clouds of that toxic blue smoke filled his house and the aroma of old house with tobacco/cigar still marks my memory of his home.

He started working at the age of 11, when his father died and he was forced to drop out of grade school to earn a living. His mother lied about his age and got him a gofer's job at the local factory. By the age of 18, he was foreman of the machine shop for Sangamo Electric. It was the only place he ever worked, and the only job he held until that spring day in 1960 when he retired.

Grandpa's house was a block removed from my "other" grandmother's house. The walk from 1925 N. 9th to 1827 N. 8th took me past a lot of old people's houses when I was there to visit. As a little boy, I hadn't realized that the neighbors all knew who I was--"Mrs. McDonald's grandson" on 9th, "Ed's grandson" on 8th. Between those two places were the parents of my mother's generation, past whose houses she'd walked to grade school in the '30s and '40s. They all remembered Mom, and by extension all of us, and they always knew when we came to visit.

Most of the old people in that block were not relatives, of course, but they had been close friends of the family and members of the same churches; they worked together at the factory and sent their kids to the same schools. Whenever we'd be there, they'd be sure to say hello and I learned, in turn, to do the same. Mr. Robinson and his son Arnold. Edna. Charlie and Esther, next door. Sarah who made sugar cookies for all the kids and who lived in my great-grandparents' old house across the driveway. Matt, the mean old man across from Mr. Robinson's house. "Uncle Bill," a kindly man across the street with an old porkpie hat, in Mrs. Quinn's old house, who were were supposed to leave alone--we were never told why, but I finally realized many years later that he was gay. All these faces and people whose images come to mind when I think of those visits.

My sister and I would walk over to Grandpa's, and every time Arnold would find us as we went past his folks' house. My sister never liked Arnold. He was a harmless man, a few years younger than my grandfolks, but had endured cognitive deficits since he was a child when he was dropped on his head while playing with his uncle. He looked alright, and delivered everybody's newspapers, and was able to collect the $1.50 biweekly fees. His reasoning capacity was about equal to ours as grade schoolers. He always had a joke or a riddle to ask us... usually the same one he'd told us when we walked over a few hours before.

I've written of Grandpa's being the first funeral I'd ever attended. In the summer before his death, I was 11 and had begun to understand people and relatives as *people,* not just in their family roles. In that hot August while I visited for the state fair, I spent a lot of time with Grandpa at his house. I even ate several meals over there--not that I couldn't have done so at other times, but this time was different. I chose to stay and spend time with him. Not just to waste a lazy summer day, but to be around him. Staying for supper seemed like a good thing. He liked the company, and we talked about stuff--even then, I would ask questions about what it was like growing up there, and to tell me things about my grandmother, from whom he'd been widowed nearly a decade. It was really the only time I ever spent with him on my own.

That same summer, when Mom came to get me and bring me back to our house near Chicago, I got a verbal tour of the family through the old pictures in a box. He must've known he was ill because he started giving stuff away to family that year. Grandpa let Mom take whatever she wanted out of that old beat up box. As she pulled them out, I learned a few things... though admittedly I was bored and not really paying attention to what was going on.

It was then, for example, that he talked about his father. My great-grandfather, as noted above, died when Grandpa (his youngest son) was 11. There was not a whole lot of affection voiced. Grandpa explicitly told a rather unsavory story about how in a fit of rage, his father had shoved a dirty diaper into his mother's face. I knew from other stories that Grandpa was very protective and fond of his mother, and his retelling had him quite angry, even 70 years later. He told, too, of his having had spinal meningitis as a little boy and how it had affected his gait to the point that as he was walking past the old cast iron stove he'd fallen into it (fortunately, it was not hot), cracking his head open. Whatever else it did, he swore it caused the meningitis to heal and he never had any lasting effects to my knowledge.

I remember how hot that summer was. (There really is no city hotter in summer than Springfield, Illinois, in mid-August.) I'd walk into the house from the kitchen porch, and Grandpa would be sitting at the dining room table stripped to the waist. All the lights would be off and a floor fan blowing, a half-burnt cigar in the ashtray beside him. He'd put his hands behind his head, sort of sigh half to himself and half to nobody in general and say, "Oooooooh, shit...." It would trail off and he'd grab his Dutch Masters, and relight the stub again. And again.

All these years later, I can still hear that voice in my head. And his laugh. He didn't laugh easy, but he had a good, full laugh when he wanted to let loose. His dark brown eyes would burn bright and if something caught him right, he'd laugh to the point he couldn't talk.

His birthday, long before I was engaged in genealogy, has always been in my head. Every time 6 March passes, I think of him and his affection for Richard Nixon. I think of his ability to effortlessly down a 12 oz. bottle of warm Stag (beer, for the uninitiated). I remember the vigor with which he would stir his sugar and cream into his coffee, before spilling about half a cup into his saucer to cool. I remember his little fingers sticking out when he drank from the saucer. I remember his excellent pies and the potato bread he loved so well. And I recall that summer when I had the brief chance to get a more grown up understanding of him.

And I smile.


Friday, March 4, 2016

Losing a Personal Genealogical Giant

The Humphreys Family, about 1896.

An oddball email earlier this week from a third cousin whose email had been hacked led me to reach out to a segment of my father's family I've not seen in more than a decade. The spammy email the hacker sent out included listings of addresses from that clan. I took the opportunity to take a moment to just pop a message out to them, asking for any family updates they thought would be useful.

Imagine my surprise on receiving word from one, informing me of his mother's death at 102 a few weeks back. His mother, the eldest daughter in her family of origin, was the clan genealogist. One of nine kids, Cynthia was the one who took to family history and genealogical research with a vengeance. Fifty years older than me, we made sort of an odd pair of researchers. She willingly shared her awareness of the family and of what she had known firsthand, or what she had been told by her father, my great-grandmother's youngest brother.

In the summer of 1979, my grandaunt connected me with her mother's relatives in Iowa. Ruth, my grandaunt, had stayed in pretty close contact with her mother's kin and wrote a letter of introduction to Cynthia, telling her I was interested in the family. When I wrote, I got an almost immediate response ("immediate" being relative in those days of postal mail--only 2 days' wait time), inviting me to learn more of our common kin.

Cynthia also shared her data. Keeping track of all her nephews, nieces, grandnephews, grandnieces... ad infinitum... was a chore! She had a small family of her own, but when the family reunion gathered there would be dozens and dozens of kinsfolk present. Cynthia knew them all and could identify on a moment's notice how they fit into the puzzle of relationships.

To her good credit, Cynthia never sought to diminish my youthful contributions to our mutual family history work. In fact, she was grateful when, in my last year of high school, I managed to extend one of the family lines back two more generations while doing research at Chicago's Newberry Library. From that time, she treated me with kindness and respect, deferring to my more active research life on the family. In the late '80s, I compiled a genealogy of the family, beginning with my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and she was an enthusiastic supporter and advisor as I completed the work over a period of years.

About 20 years ago, she was particularly pleased to learn that we had solved a troublesome family conundrum. Generations of researchers had been unable to determine the name of a Revolutionary War ancestor's wife. The soldier was well-researched but nobody could determine whom he had married. Several solid researchers, and some exceptionally good luck, led to the discovery of a journal entry kept by the soldier (and written in his own hand). In it, the aged veteran recorded his wife's full name... a diminutive form of Cynthia! Her delight at learning the connection to the family's long-unremembered foremother was palpable.

Cynthia's efforts to record and report, and later to share, word of our common family helped ignite the fire in me that kept me plugging away in those days so long ago when I was grasping at learning how to do genealogical research. I am grateful for her mentorship, friendship, and confidence over more than three decades of researching.

Most of us are the fortunate recipients of family kindnesses along the way. Who are your genealogical giants? Have you remembered them in your research notes and narratives? Without their guidance and assistance, many of our genealogical journeys would have been even more challenging along the way.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Off to the Academy

Recently, I've had the great good fortune to spend time in Provo, Utah, working with Ancestry Academy. It was an amazing and fun experience, and I believe it offers genealogists an outstanding opportunity to learn about topics of interest in the field.

In early December, I found myself hightailing it down I-15, a road I never travel. Generally when I visit Utah, I'm within visual range of Temple Square. My usual lodgings are at the Kimball Condominiums, northeast of the Temple; my usual workplace is the Family History Library. Still, I normally have an auto, since I don't like to feel completely trapped downtown. I have gotten to be very fond, for example, of the Sugar House neighborhood's many good restaurants and bars.

Provo is about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City. I won't even try to delineate which valley and where Thanksgiving Point is, but it's located in a different segment of the mountains that seem to make up the Wasatch Front. The interstate is under a major expansion project between the two cities and during heavy traffic periods, this highway gets substantial traffic pressure. Fortunately, I was driving in an off period and got to the hotel downtown with some ease.

Regrettably, I soon realized that my packing job the night before had been inadequate and the clothes that made my suitcase did not include the suit coat I had intended to bring! A late night run, during Christmas shopping season, to a haberdashery had me ready to go in a new outfit for the day's recording session.

The studio itself is in a former Carnegie Library building just off the center of the city. With my expansive forehead and what was then little more than scruffy whiskers as I grew my beard back in, I wondered what sorts of makeup silliness would come my way. To my great relief, the makeup artist was truly an artist. By the time I was finished in her chair, I actually looked presentable. 

The folks working with the Academy are outstanding. The film director walked me through what he expected to have happen, and Laura Prescott, Ancestry Academy's program director, talked me through the slides and presentation. Note to self: the creative types were all using Apple products, rather than Microsoft-based programs and hardware.

My topic, church records, is one I know well and one on which I have lectured many times. Still, this venue was a challenge because there was no live audience with which to work. A video camera and the attendant technicians, all of whom were very nice, very competent people... well, it's just not the same as a live roomful of genealogists at a workshop or conference! It makes for an interesting challenge to be working in a secluded studio. After a bit, I got the hang of it and things proceeded smoothly. (Until the BEEP BEEP BEEP of construction trucks working nearby caused us to halt the recording for a few minutes!)

As we worked through each section, or when a retake was necessary, the director would guide me to a better way of expressing myself or making a point. In the meantime, others would make sure I didn't move out of camera range, or do something stupid with my microphone. By the mid-morning, my bow tie was plastered to my shirt so as to keep it from drooping as I spoke!

Our work was done in the early afternoon and so I returned to my hotel on foot, walking past the exterior of the new downtown temple in Provo. The day was cold and clear and the mountains to the east of the city were stunning at sunset. Later, I enjoyed an evening's dinner with Laura at a Native American-themed restaurant, the Black Sheep Cafe, right downtown. 

The bonus of the time was a whole day to do research at the Library! Not knowing how long the filming would take, I arranged to stay over an extra day in case something more was needed. As it was not, I drove back to SLC and encountered the wonders of The Inversion once I got north of Pleasant Grove. While at the Library on a largely unplanned journey, I managed to add a couple of generations on one of my wife's Germanic lines while on B-1, using church records from the mid-1700s near the Luxembourg/German frontier. I had known the family to be in Ehnen, Luxembourg, but this particular family included a reference Wincheringen, Germany, just a few miles distant. 

Ancestry Academy's offerings are growing monthly. I have been impressed with the offerings I've seen, and the ones I am aware will be coming forward. The episode I filmed in early December is now nearing release. The colleagues who are a part of the program are talented, and many of them are also personal friends. Of the individuals I know in the lineup, all are outstanding genealogists; I'd be pleased to put any one of them to work on my genealogical projects.

While acknowledging my own interest in Ancestry Academy's progress, I also recommend it for those curious about a variety of topics and look forward to additional courses to be released in the coming weeks. I think you'll find it worth the time to explore there!


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Seventeen years

I used to think in spans of four or five years. That's an academic lifetime. High school. College. Four years' turnover is a lifetime. So when I looked at the calendars this week and realized that the dates 11-15 February 2016 are identically placed in the week as were those same dates in 1999. While this is a leap year, before 29 February, the dates fall the same.

As always, there was a church meeting to attend. Our parsonage was connected to the church by a covered brick cloister, so I was close by when the call came but a message was simply taken and written on the eraser board in the kitchen. "McHenry. This afternoon. Call your brother."

Perhaps my family is not unique, but in among us, the rare phone calls from siblings typically do not insist on a return call. When I got back to the house, I returned the call to my oldest brother, reporting that our father had had a stroke that afternoon. When he was taken ill, Mom called our brother to get his help in moving Dad to the bedroom from the kitchen table, where he was eating a sandwich. On arriving, my brother realized the seriousness of the situation and called for an ambulance.

McHenry, just about 10 minutes away from their home, was the closest hospital. And so, in through the ER, Dad was admitted for what was soon determined to be a stroke. A lifelong smoker, and a regular drinker, at 67 my father was a ticking time bomb. He'd been told in his 30s that his blood pressure was too high once when he went to donate blood. In the intervening 30-odd years, he'd never bothered to go to the doctor to follow up on the matter. His father's death at 55 from a stroke, his uncle's death of a heart attack at 68, his aunt's death at 62 of a stroke reveal a particular pattern of cardiovascular outcomes that were unhappy, to say the least.

The next morning, Friday, Lincoln's Birthday, I drove the 100 or so miles to the hospital and spent most of the day there. When I arrived, Dad was already out at a test, so I just waited in the room, having borne along with me a recent photo of my family taken for the church's picture directory. The kids, then nearly 10, pushing 7 and almost 5, looked nice in the photo and I thought it might cheer Dad a bit. If nothing else, Mom could take the photo home with her one evening, I thought. 

After a while, I heard the wheeled cart being brought back to the room and I could hear voices in the hallway. The chair was a convertible bed that flipped up to make a seat back--a clever contraption, really. The head of the seat was about 2' higher than Dad sat, though, and I was struck by his shrunken appearance. For the first time ever, I noticed his hair looked less black and more grey. He looked old, to be honest. He seemed so small to me. He seemed fragile. I know he was afraid. It was the first time I'd ever seen him look that way and it unnerved me.

The test had not gone well. It was a swallow test. He was to drink some sort of radioactive cocktail and then a motion-picture x-ray of sorts was to be done. Trouble was, he aspirated the solution. Twice. That set off fits of coughing and made the whole ordeal worse. They had finally given up, realizing that his swallowing mechanism had been affected by the stroke.

Soon Mom came in, accompanied by our middle brother, who had driven her. We passed a longish day, finally breaking for some lunch in the cafeteria while Dad got a bit of rest after his bad test experience. As we ate lunch, the unspoken worry about nursing homes, feeding tubes, and the challenges that such matters would create sort of hung there. Eventually, we worked our way back to the room and we were shortly joined by my oldest brother as well.

As we visited in the room, the physical therapist came in. She asked several questions... as you would expect: "Who's that?" My wife, he answered. We'll be married 48 years next week. "And who are these guys?" My three sons. 47, 42 and 34. I've got two daughters, too, but they're not here. "Can I do some tests?" Sure.

As she began to put him through some tests, my brothers took Mom out and I stayed with Dad. I don't know if they didn't want to be there, or wanted to talk with her, or what... but as I was still there, I watched her work.

Can you sit up? Well, that didn't go so well. Grasp my hands as tight as you can. One side is definitely stronger. Can you stand? Would you help me, sir? How about if your son gives you a little help? Quick, let him sit back down.

Soon it dawned on me that there were more significant deficits that wouldn't be easy to work with, either. Extensive PT and the like, along with a feeding tube, were on the horizon. Oh, and there was a patch on his shoulder, too. Nicotine withdrawal. I warned the nurse and the PT quietly that that wouldn't be the only withdrawal he would be enduring, and sooner rather than later, they had better be prepared for his body drying out in unhappy ways.

Dusk was falling and I had to get back home, so I left that afternoon about 4. I got back to the house around 7 that evening, and it being a Friday went through the dining room at the church to see the folks gathered to play pinochle. They knew of Dad's situation and asked how he was doing, so I told them he'd likely have some long rehab ahead of him but he knew me and seemed OK when I left.

I called the hospital on Saturday afternoon to see what was going on, but Mom cut me off and said she couldn't talk right then. None of my siblings answered phone calls, but I wasn't especially bothered--we all had kids at home and weekends rarely meant quiet time for any of us. Still, Mom's curt response was out-of-character. I heard nothing more that day.

Worship began at 10:15 at that church, and Sunday School began an hour earlier. I had been teaching the confirmands' class and was robing up when the phone rang in the meeting room off the sacristy. It was my sister-in-law. 

"Dad's dying. If you want to see him alive, you have to get here right now!" Well, thanks for that word, but I can't get there before this afternoon. I have to get through church and we'll leave afterward.

My wife and I drove up to see what was going on and when we arrived, I learned why I had had no responses on Saturday. Over the course of the day, Dad had had a series of TIAs, each one successively more impactful than the other. By nightfall, it had become clear to my mother that he was in a terminal decline. Overnight, it seems he'd tried to get out of bed or had fallen out of bed as a result of yet another tremendous cerebral hemorrhage. And so they had put him (counter to his advanced directive) on life support.

I shall not detail the torturous 24 hours that followed, but will simply say I hope no one ever has to face the sort of things my father endured, even while unconscious. I mention the 24-hour period. The hospital decided he had to be on machines for that length of time before there could be discussion of their removal. My oldest brother was having a long-planned outpatient procedure done, and the younger of my sisters was home with the flu. With Mom, my oldest sister, my middle brother and his wife, we kept a vigil outside the ICU. 

My brothers had decided two things at some point over the weekend. That machines weren't going to continue in use, and that I would be the one to inform the hospital of our decision. That may seem an unfair attitude, but honestly, I'd spent far more time in hospital ICUs, and dealing with medical people, than any of my siblings because of my pastoral work. They figured I'd put on my pastor's shoes and take care of things when needed.

As the day turned to afternoon, and the 24-hour period had come and gone, I asked on my mother's behalf that the machinery be removed. The nurse called to speak with the attending physician to begin the process. Soon, I was called to a white courtesy phone within the hospital. "Yes," began the doctor, "I understand you want us to conduct a brain scan on your father?" No. The time has come to disconnect the machines that you put him on yesterday against his wishes and those of my mother. "Well, we can't just disconnect him without running another test." In my best, most patient and pastorly voice, I noted that the situation was torture to both my father and mother and the only reason he was still considered alive was due to the mechanical ventillator forcing air in and out of his lungs. "We have to be certain there is no remaining brain function." 

I have a confession to make, 17 years later. 

That doctor was an ass.

After hanging up on said voice, I asked about another physician, the one who had admitted Dad through the ER. Could the nurse get him on the phone, by chance?

The white courtesy phone rang. Yes, this is Reverend McDonald, with a question about my father. (If they were going to throw "Doctor" around, I figured I'd pull out my God-card.) Given that he's pretty clearly dead, but for the machines, our mother has decided--and our family is in agreement--that they be disconnected. No more tests. Nothing. Just disconnect the equipment. Now. The physician asked to speak with the nurse and I was excused from the area near the phone.

Several minutes later, the nurse appeared in the waiting room. She had what might best be described as a sheepish grin on her face. "I don't know how you did it, but that's the first time I've ever seen any of these doctors back down." She added that the second physician had signed off on removing the supportive devices after our conversation. We were to give her a few minutes while she disconnected the machines and removed the tubes, but she would call us in then.

Mom came in, and asked me to remove Dad's wedding ring, which we got off his finger. One by one, the family came in to say their goodbyes. I'd been at deathbeds before, professionally, and so watched the one monitor still attached as the numbers decreased. My oldest sister stayed longest, but then finally she left, too. 

There I stood, watching the numbers decline further and further. 

I thought of all the things that had gone between us through the years. We were never close, but probably in some ways too much alike. As I'd grown up, there seemed a sort of disconnect between us, perhaps the same one that might go through all fathers and sons, but finally we'd come to be more at ease with each other. After one unhappy encounter shortly after my marriage, I had said to him all that I needed to say and I knew that if anything happened to either of us, nothing more needed be said. I'd made my peace long before.

And then I saw that the numbers were gone. No sounds. No more impulses wracking his body making him jump around like a fish out of water. Just me, holding his hand as he slipped away.

Seventeen years. Three-plus "spans" in my earlier reckoning. And it's still more fresh in my mind than I want to have to admit.